Monday, June 30, 2014

Mystery Makers

I recently saw "The Mysteries"--back for an extended run--at The Flea Theater in New York. The play is actually 52 short plays, by 48 playwrights, that comprise an updated version of the York Mystery Play Cycle--a Middle English group of 48 plays depicting the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis through Revelations.* 

Like late medieval mystery cycles, which could unfold over many hours or even days, "The Mysteries" takes about six hours, and includes two longish intervals (with food served). Although the production includes a lot of things that the Middle English versions leave out (nudity, swearing, sex, blasphemy) and lacks the "mysteries" (theatrical machinery) that made the plays so stunning in the late Middle Ages, "The Mysteries" feels medieval. The plays and most of the performances are colloquial but not naturalistic; and just as in the medieval period, the stories of the Bible are transformed and translated for a general audience whose familiarity with the lessons of the Bible might be patchy, at best. The meal breaks and general conviviality at The Flea seems medieval (or do I mean "medieval"?), as well. Pageants were often performed during festivals and fairs, and with plenty of food stalls around. Eating dinner and dessert with my fellow theater-goers and chatting to the actors provided a shared sense of fellowship and community that is also central to certain kinds of medieval drama. 

"The Mysteries" runs through July 14, and there are usually rush tickets available for $35. It's transporting.

* These plays, or pageants, often included complicated theatrical machinery to produce stunning effects. For example, shipwrights' guilds would produce a mechanical whale for the story of Jonah and the whale, or an artificial storm and an ark for the story of Noah and the Flood.