While the summer movie season of 2003 may be winding down, a small theater in Hollywood is introducing its own interpretation of the summer blockbuster, one that could have been the box office smash of 1503. The Actor-s Gang production of THE MYSTERIES is a tribute to what was one of the principal forms of mass entertainment in the centuries leading up to the Renaissance: mystery plays.
These were popular Christian myths written in the vernacular, acted out in broad gestures, and staged along side the most extravagant theatrical effects medieval technology would allow.
Those who doubt that a mystery play could ever be a bigger event than a tent-pole movie like TERMINATOR 3 should take note of THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES, a French mystery play that contained almost 500 speaking parts, over 6,000 lines of rhymed verse and was performed over the course of 40 days.
THE MYSTERIES mercifully clocks in at just under 3 hours and is divided into two parts. The first is a collection of historical mystery plays from England, depicting scenes from the Old Testament, starting with the creation and leading up to the story of the three magi. Part two focuses on the New Testament, featuring biblical parables adapted by 20th century playwrights such as Dario Fo and Borislav Pekic.
As a diverting display of theater history, THE MYSTERIES is a success; however, in their attempt to breathe dramatic life into a dead theatrical genre, the Actor-s Gang cannot overcome one major problem: the acting. The art of stage performance has evolved quite a bit in 500 years and the techniques that made mystery plays come alive back then are now for the most part forgotten.
Just as a thespian from the middle ages would be confounded by A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE; the cast of THE MYSTERIES, trained in 20th century American naturalism, cannot depict the simple, unsubtle traditions of medieval drama. Brent Hinkley, who portrays Noah, comes closest to approximating this na-Ee, declarative style, but he, along with the rest of the gang, too often portrays innocence as little more than mannered line readings and blank expressions.
The cast is on much firmer ground when performing the work of modern playwrights-in particular the story of Pontius Pilate as interpreted by the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. Pilate is a consummate modernist anti-hero, tortured and layered with subtext-and actor Robert Dorfman is so thankful to be in contemporary dramatic territory that he milks every drop of innuendo out of his lines, to the point where it starts to resemble Lawrence Olivier-s infamous -snail scene-Efrom SPARTACUS.
But thankfully, unlike most current plays, mystery plays do not rest solely on the actors. There is of course the spectacle. Designer Richard Hoover and Director Brian Kulick didn-t have a blockbuster budget, but they use their resources well. The production values of THE MYSTERIES may be low-the special effects include apples, squirt bottles and a rubber snake-but unlike many of this summer-s more expensive spectacles, the level of creativity and ambition throughout the show is always high.
THE MYSTERIES runs at The Actor-s Gang through September 28th.
This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.