Arts and Entertainment | Theater

Well-versed: Flea Theater tackles the Bible in fittingly epic, 6-hour ‘Mysteries’

You probably didn’t think the Bible was the sexiest text on your Core reading list. Then again, you almost certainly never imagined a polyamorous relationship between the angel Gabriel, Jesus, and Judas lying at the heart of the Crucifixion, nor Jesus spreading his antiestablishment politics through Twitter, Arab Spring-style. And I’d be appalled—if secretly vindicated—to hear that you spent Lit Hum dreaming of scenarios in which a frankly very attractive Son of God came to you in a semi-naked state, nicknamed you “Mary Mags,” and let you wash his feet with your hair. 

And yet, the Bible, when reinterpreted through the modern, anachronistic, and satirical lens of director Ed Iskandar and his 54-person cast of “The Mysteries,” contains all these treasures and more.

To say that the time I spent at the performance last Friday night was surreal would be something of an understatement. I entered the Flea at 6:30 p.m. with what I thought was a working understanding of what a night at the theater should entail. I left after midnight, having been served dinner and dessert by the cast of the play, and having seen more penises than the sum of all the penises I had previously witnessed, or could ever hope to. 

For some, the idea of a six-hour-long episodic retelling of the Bible will undoubtedly resurrect the vomit-inducing (holy) ghost of “The Bible,” the TV miniseries that was remade this year into the Hollywood epic “Son of God,” detailing the rise and fall—and rise again—of everybody’s favorite Messiah. But with its black humor, moral ambivalence, abundant nudity, sexual themes, and occasional violence, “The Mysteries” is a far cry from the creationist brainwashing that gave birth to “Son of God” and its glorification of a Hollywood Jesus with a dazzling smile and penchant for performing miracles. 

Rather, the Jesus that emerges from the portraits of the 48 playwrights who contributed to “The Mysteries” is unsure of his fate, questioning his parents, his purpose in life, his own moral compass, and even his sexuality. In other words, he’s a true-to-life millennial. “That awkward moment when you realize God sacrificed 10,000 innocent babies so that you could live,” an embarrassed preteen Jesus, played by Colin Waitt, announces in “Jesus Grows Up Fast,” a scene in the second act. 

Illustration by Kenza Ben Brahim

Clearly, the audience can’t possibly relate to the “awkward moment” scenario in which Jesus finds himself. But in other aspects of his biography, we find the physical manifestation of the Lord uncannily familiar to a whiny 20-something: Jesus takes a gap year to find himself, curates his social media presence to boost his popularity, and ultimately winds up in a forlorn apartment in Brooklyn post-Resurrection, eating Chinese food for breakfast with no memory of the three nights before or where he left his clothes.

Iskandar was adamant that the “York Mystery Plays”—the medieval dramatization of the Old and New Testaments from which his play takes its inspiration—could be made relevant to an audience that barely remembers the 20th century, let alone the first. 

“What I’m trying to tap into for most people is a binge-watch need that we have, when we suddenly start watching something on Netflix,” Iskandar said. “It’s a sort of marathon treat for Generation Netflix, is what it is.”

Historical and theological authenticity are not at the top of Iskandar’s list of priorities. Instead, he’s interested in a deeper, more symbolic truth.

“I suddenly realized ... that all these stories were, was some attempt to harness a guide as to how to live life better. So once I started thinking about Bible stories in terms of a social guide, or some sense of philosophy, rather than religion, it became very interesting to me,” he said. “These writers who recorded the words in the Bible itself were never really reporting literal actions, but creating parables to explain a point. It’s a journey from the divine to the mortal, to the actual common man, trying to make sense of what it is that we’re supposed to live life for.”

For Gabriel Jason Dean, writer of the “Jesus Enters Jerusalem” scene, Iskandar’s grand vision was daunting at first. 

“I had a lot of trepidation about the project when Ed first asked me. I just thought, ‘How in the world is this going to be entertaining for six and a half hours?’” he said.

Ultimately, though, it was the ambitious scope of the play that persuaded Dean to contribute. 

“The thing that excited me most, and the reason I said yes, was both my great fear that this wouldn’t work ... and that it had so many people involved,” he said. “Not just playwrights, but actors. The design team is huge. This is the biggest thing the Flea has ever done.”

Madeleine George, writer of the scene “A Worm Walks into a Garden, or the Fall of Man,” echoed Dean’s sentiments. 

“I don’t think any of us have worked on something of this size before,” she said. “This is a very ancient text and an extremely ambitious endeavor.”

Iskandar admits that creating a cohesive play from the work of tens of writers with a cast of 54 was an unwieldy task at best. 

“All of us knew it was going to be a nightmare trying to coordinate everything,” Iskander said. “It’s an amazing thing—you make one change in one play, and suddenly four others need changes. These rehearsal reports went out to 162 people a night, which is insane.” 

As difficult as it was to coordinate, much of the creativity and vivacity of “The Mysteries” stemmed from its unruliness. “It really was the building of the most organic community ever,” Iskandar said. “You couldn’t force everyone to participate the way you wanted them to participate—they simply became a part of it the way that they knew how, the way that they could. It was quite magical.” 

Having each written their own episode of the play in isolation, the playwrights were tasked with harmonizing their stories in an attempt to create coherent, developed plotlines and characters. 

“I went to see the initial run-through, before rehearsals even started,” Dean said. “I think all the playwrights who were there realized, ‘Oh. We really need to talk to each other.’ The story was kind of all over the place. It was huge and epic, and there were wonderful, beautiful moments, but it just wasn’t cohesive yet.” 

“For me, it was an interesting moment to go into these early rehearsals, where there were other playwrights there, and hear the first attempt to sort of put things all together,” George said of the workshopping process. “It was an exciting and challenging sort of game, flitting backwards and forwards through the other plays and trying to find things that bled through from other people’s texts.” 

Iskander emphasized the collaborative process of creating “The Mysteries,” but for some of the writers involved, the very idea of having a conversation about the script and changing their work to fit into the wider arc of the play was a novel one. 

“Playwrights have sovereignty in the artistic process in the American theater,” George said. “That’s one of the things that we pride ourselves on. This sense of submitting to a much larger project is a rare pleasure. We don’t get a chance to do that very often.”

“It’s like writing for television,” Dean said. “It’s a huge team of people who are doing it, and you have one executive producer who’s seeing the whole thing all the time ... which ultimately meant my piece changed, too. I’m not sure it’s completely what I initially wanted, but that was OK, you know. It became something else.”

This sense of transformation is at the center of a play in which characters change under the interpretation of different writers and cast members must take on many roles over the course of the evening. 

“The facility of switching among three [characters] for me, anyway, is just a muscle that I’ve been developing since November, when I’ve been working on these parts,” Kate Thulin, who plays Hagar, Rachel, and Bobby, said. “You move so quickly from story to story, and our job is to draw the entire audience immediately into the different genre, the different play, and the different story that is happening.” 

If the pace of transformation in “The Mysteries” took practice for its actors to conquer, it can be dizzying for audience members. Over the course of the evening, Mary, played by Allison Buck, evolves from a defiant if naïve teen mom to a grouchy old woman trapped in a nursing home to the serene and benevolent Madonna adopted as the icon of the Catholic Church. During the intermission, though, she appears as just Allison, serving me dinner and telling me she likes my outfit. 

In one extra-meta scene toward the end of the play, Jesus reaches out to God for some ultimate, overarching truth. The response is something to the effect of, “You’re not Jesus. You’re Colin Waitt. I’ve been watching your play, Colin.” 

It is in these moments of hyperaware transcendence that “The Mysteries” approaches something resembling its own philosophy—a philosophy that seems to argue that there is no higher purpose, only tolerance, love, and the enjoyment of the present. 

“It’s a Dionysian Jesus, really, that the playwrights have collectively arrived at,” Iskandar said. “It is a Jesus who advocates that it is a church of self-awareness. Self-awareness and self-understanding is what leads to enlightenment, and for that there has to be acceptance and tolerance.” And if you can’t quite buy that, go anyway—if only for a good laugh, exceptional hummus, and a foolproof way to raise your penis sightings. 

“The Mysteries” runs through May 25 at the Flea Theater, 41 White St. Rush tickets are $35.

katie.mcmahon@columbiaspectator.com | @katiermcmahon

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Graham Winter posted on

On my first visit to NYC, I was determined to find some theatre (or theater, if you like) that was unlike anything in London. Did I ever find it in this production. Quite simply the most magical, emotional evening I have ever spent at a performance, with the unexpected and thrilling bonus of being able to interact with the performers mid-performance.
Thank you Flea Theater, thank you NYC - I can't wait to come back.

Graham Winter,
London, England

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