A clean start is a beautiful thing, mythically speaking. The universe was without form and void, so God moved in and within seven days did a miraculous job of putting things in order. The Classic Stage Company, before Brian Kulick’s accession as artistic director, was not exactly without form and void, and The Mysteries, his first production there, is all too noticeably non-miraculous, but it’s given the place a fresh feel and a fresh energy. The notion of starting at the beginning of Western drama, with plays written early in the last millennium, was a good one; and whether you believe in the old Judeo-Christian myths or not, you can’t help responding to them as signs of hope. And though Kulick’s production is premised on hopelessly postmodern literalism, it never gets in the myths’ way or clutters them with stale gimmickry. Afterward you feel a little enlightened, and a little reinvigorated. A clean start is a beautiful thing.
The cleanliness gets muddied in an area that will surprise theatergoers who know Kulick’s work: the thinking that underlies the production. About 60 percent of the text—all of Act I and the final scene of Act II—comes from poet Tony Harrison’s 1985 reworking, for the British National Theatre, of medieval plays from the York and Wakefield cycles; Harrison trims and shapes the verse to suit modern ears, rarely updating its archaisms or scanting its rugged beauty. He also largely leaves the doctrinal sense alone; these little plays that dramatize Bible stories to inculcate Christian dogmas are left to do exactly that.
But Kulick’s second half is made up of playlets by distinctly post-Christian authors, some of whom have distinct axes to grind against Christianity and what it’s turned the teachings of Jesus into over the last 2,000 years. The Serbian writer Borislav Pekic reduces the raising of Lazarus to an Absurdist cartoon; Dario Fo administers crude, swift satirical kicks to two vociferous sectors of Christianity, the nitwits who swallow the hogwash about miracles and the ones Bernard Shaw used to call “Crosstians,” who fixate on Jesus’ tortures (which he shared with Spartacus and every other Roman political criminal) instead of his teachings. The evening’s high point, the confrontation of Pilate and Jesus as envisioned by Mikhail Bulgakov in his great novel The Master and Margarita, replaces myths and miracles alike with a compassionate psychological realism that shrivels Christianity into an embarrassing side effect of Roman imperialism. These are all interesting works (except the Pekic, which is tiresome), but they flatly contradict, both doctrinally and aesthetically, the folkish simplicities of the medieval plays. This makes the evening’s intended audience a bigger mystery than the transfiguration. Who’s it for—believers, skeptics, secularists, or theological gormandizers? Many of those who don’t take the second half as a calculated affront are likely to see the first half as merely a museum curio in updated clothing.
Yet it would be a pity for them to ignore the event. You don’t have to be a believing Christian to be touched, as the atheist Shaw was, by “the peculiar spiritual beauty of medieval art,” its fusion of humble directness and crudity with the highest visionary goals. Cheerfully ahistorical, the texts bring the warmth and specificity of everydayness—Cain sneeringly telling the audience to bury him in Wakefield’s quarry—into the deep abstraction of a divine plan. When Abraham, resisting the command to sacrifice Isaac, cries out, “Ah, Jesu!” the very wrongness of it (or, if you’re Christian, the rightness of the wrongness) is what makes the moment magical. You can respect and even envy, for an instant, the cathedral-building people who lighted the Dark Ages with this faith. That they also lighted it with bonfires for burning pagans, Jews, Muslims, and occasionally each other, while committing numberless additional barbarities, doesn’t mar the art itself; it just tells you its anonymous creators were human, and warns you against the viciousness inherent in all “faith-based” enterprises.
Maybe that was Kulick’s motive in choosing his texts for Act II. But New York theatergoers hardly need lessons from Fo and Pekic on how to be irreligious; their faith, like their theater’s spiritual sense, largely vanished long ago. (As Eric Bentley said about Broadway, you’re never surprised to see money changers in the Temple.) New plays with a new spiritual sense, that might rescue Christianity from the bigoted horror the right wing has made of it, might also do something to redeem our sinfully unilluminating stage. For such plays to exist, we need the myths to begin again. In starting his new regime with these prime examples of how the old theater started, Kulick has made a wise move.
His production choices are mostly wise too: a largely bare stage; simple furniture (library tables and books, underscoring the antiquity of the texts); ordinary clothes and simple declarative speech. Kulick’s touch with these materials is still uncertain, and sometimes foolishly coarse. Though the cast supplies many affecting moments, there’s also far too much yelling. Adam and Eve being nude seems logical—though I winced for them in CSC’s drafty space—but did they need bushels of apples thrown at them to symbolize the fateful one? And did Noah and his spouse need so many buckets of actual water poured on them to represent the Flood? Postmodernism is dumb and wasteful in all the arts, but especially in the theater, because it repudiates the existence of the imagination, which is where theater derives its magic. Wonder is the source of art, as it is of religion; a heightened sense of it might bring The Mysteries to its desired state of artistic grace.
“Going Medieval: New Artistic Director Gives the Classics a Religious Makeover” by Tom Sellar