Court Theatre

at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel


Open Door Theatre Company

at the Royal George Theatre Center

Paradise is where I am. –Voltaire, Oedipe

“In Adam’s fall / We sinned all,” the poet says. Whether or not you’re inclined to believe the story of the expulsion from Eden, or even to accept it as a theological metaphor for the human condition, there’s no denying the durability of Genesis. As it happens, there’s a rush this month on lean, lanky Adams and dewy, doe-eyed Eves in long underwear. In Court Theatre’s The Mystery Cycle: Creation, a stylish piece for all its faux naivete, the underwear is fashionably formfitting, giving the characters a palpable adolescent sexuality; The Diary of Adam and Eve at the Royal George Theatre’s Ruggles Cabaret outfits the first couple in baggier (and cheaper) bodywear, making for a more childlike pair of paradisiacal playmates.

The two productions are different in many more ways than tailoring. Court’s production is a beautifully designed large-scale family entertainment performed mostly by union actors; the low-budget, non-Equity Diary of Adam and Eve is an intimate chamber musical aimed at adults. More important are the contrasting agendas: for all its determined racial and religious pluralism, the traditionally biblical Mystery Cycle might best be described as “fundamentalist funnies” when it comes to the relations between men and women, while Diary, based on a story by Mark Twain, slyly undermines the Bible’s sexual stereotyping in an effort to explore the nuances of heterosexual relationships.

Following the example of a mid-1980s production at the National Theatre of Great Britain, Court’s Mystery Cycle adapts medieval religious drama to a contemporary setting. The mystery plays performed in 13th- and 14th-century England were huge community affairs for which local trade guilds pooled their professional resources. (A program note informs us that the actors “were well paid and were expected to earn their wage”–and were sometimes fined if they forgot their lines or gave substandard performances. Interesting notion.) The actors’ assignments reflected their crafts–shipbuilders enacted the story of Noah’s ark, for instance–and the Old and New Testament tales were dramatized in terms the common people could identify with.

Court’s script, adapted by Bernard Sahlins from such medieval texts as the York, Wakefield, Chester, and N-Town cycles, endeavors to do the same thing for a contemporary audience. Rather than try to create believable characterizations of Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Mary, and so on, the cast of this pageant-within-a-play portray modern people who then take on these roles (just as the actors in Goodman Theatre’s The Gospel at Colonus played churchgoers who in turn played figures from Greek tragedy). Sahlins, following the lead of his sources, intersperses biblical texts with comic and pastoral scenes from contemporary life; he also employs anachronistic references to emphasize thematic relationships between the stories of Lucifer, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Isaac’s words of submission to his father Abraham, who has been ordered by God to slaughter him, are obvious foreshadowings of Christ’s self-sacrifice, for example; and repeated concerns with betrayal and shame resonate in the story of Lucifer’s fall from heaven and in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden.

The verbal and visual anachronisms also contemporize the material. Isaac’s impending death is heralded by a procession of dancing butchers straight from your local deli; the blades they wield later form a Star of David, which then becomes the star pursued by the Magi seeking Jesus’ birthplace; King Herod is a sleazy Las Vegas casino owner; and the travelers on Noah’s ark hide under umbrellas (which they cleverly flap to simulate the whooshing of a dove’s wings).

Sahlins and his codirector Nicholas Rudall also employ conscientiously color-blind casting to make the show reflect its time and place. Lucifer, clad in leather jacket and boots, is black; so is Gabriel, outfitted with white crepe wings and aviator’s goggles. Mary is black, Joseph is white, and Jesus is a bundle of white cloth tenderly folded by Mary as a nice metaphor for the virgin birth.

But though the show’s attitudes toward race and religion are modern, its sexual politics are–well, positively medieval. Don’t look for women in nontraditional roles here; it’s a man’s world. Just ask God: he’s the heavy guy in the overalls and miner’s goggles. He made the world in seven days; maybe that’s why it’s so unevenly organized between the active, multidimensional men who build and run things and their two-dimensional female helpmates, who are either virgins, temptresses, or common nags. As a show clearly aimed at family audiences, The Mystery Cycle sends a message out to impressionable viewers that opposes racial prejudice while reinforcing sexual stereotypes. (I’m uncertain about its religious nature; obviously a biblical show is going to reflect Judeo-Christian values, but making the baby-killing Herod a Muslim is questionable, given that Mohammed didn’t pop up till almost six centuries after Christ’s death.)

None of this is to fault the cast, which generates the warm sincerity the show needs to establish contact with its audience. Standouts in a remarkably consistent ensemble include the innately funny Rob Riley as a devout but discomfited Noah; Kyle Colerider-Krugh as a sincere Abel and a slimy Herod’s son; Tom Amandes, a genuine and warm presence as Joseph; Johnny Lee Davenport, all fire and brimstone as Lucifer; Kate Buddeke, who finds remarkable gutsiness and variation in the simplistically shrewish Noah’s wife; and the wide-eyed, well-tailored Adam and Eve of John Schroeder and Rebecca MacLean.

The actors are supported by the work of some of the best creative talents in the city. Mary Griswold and John Paoletti’s witty, whimsical costumes and sets make superb use of the vaulted arches and soaring ceiling of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel; so does Michael Philippi’s lighting (the early effect of a radiant God rising to heaven gives the show a remarkable beginning). Composer Larry Schanker, who has recently displayed considerable artistic development (note this season’s A Christmas Carol at Goodman), provides a lovely score whose stylistic range, from hard rock to smooth jazz to gospel to Cajun folk, never seems inconsistent; and Timothy O’Slynne’s choreography creates compelling sequences of ritual movement, including the snakelike dance of death that frames the intermissionless evening and the Hair-like audience-participation dance that concludes the performance. Indeed, much of The Mystery Cycle evokes 1960s-style theatrical communalism, from the preshow minglefest of audience and actors to the gently whimsical story-theater format of most of the text. It puts one in mind of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

Court’s Adam and Eve emerge together from a box of mulch. In The Diary of Adam and Eve, an offstage voice bids a sleeping Adam to rise. “Just give me five more minutes,” Adam pleads. It’s the first of many requests he will find ignored–by God and by the strange new long-haired creature he keeps running into around the garden (whose local body of rushing water turns out to be Niagara Falls). For example, Adam asks this creature–she introduces herself as Eve–to use his names for the local animals: flyers, squirters, and the like. Instead she comes up with her own terms–like parrot and cow–because “that’s what they look like.” She also invents the word “us,” though she admits she doesn’t know what it means.

When Adam reluctantly invites Eve into his little hut to get some shelter from a rainstorm, she begins making improvements despite the fact he doesn’t want any. He’s the builder and explorer, she’s the decorator and domesticator; theirs isn’t an active- passive relationship of dominance and submission, or an exaggerated Bickersons-style battle of the sexes, but a partnership between two people who must learn to balance their own aggressiveness against the other’s claim to equal space.

As their relationship develops, these adult children learn from each other’s abilities and limits. His language skills improve–he invents the world’s first joke (“Why did the chicken cross the road? . . .”)–and he comes to appreciate her knack for decorating; she gradually recognizes the value of his utilitarianism.

When a certain snake (played as a vaudevillian song-and-dance man) convinces Eve to taste the forbidden fruit, the result is both loss and gain. Ejection from Eden leads to new emotional and erotic fulfillment–from “you” and “me” to “us,” the word God had Eve invent before she was ready to use it. With love comes loss: one child is killed and another runs away, and Adam and Eve face the inevitability of their own deaths. But death and love are interconnected too–if we don’t love, then death doesn’t matter, Adam learns at the surprisingly moving ending.

This brief one-act by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Jerome Coopersmith was originally part of The Apple Tree, a 1966 Broadway musical consisting of three short works. The Diary of Adam and Eve–originally played by Alan Alda and Barbara Harris under Mike Nichols’s direction–has proved the most durable of the pieces, and this staging by the Open Door Theatre Company (an ensemble of recent Millikin University graduates) reminds us why. The songs, though not memorable compared to the same team’s scores for Fiddler on the Roof and Fiorello, function effectively as witty musical monologues; the script blends wry, post-Second City relationship comedy with the prickly humanist underpinnings of Mark Twain’s original story. And after some early hyperactive cutesiness that thankfully fades away soon, the very young Adam and Eve of Paul Gritton and Tammy Savaiano, nicely directed by Kathryn Dolan and accompanied by pianist Jim Collins, convey a nearly perfect delicacy and sweetness to make this parable of evolution–of the human race and of every couple that kept it going–well worth seeing in its very limited run.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Matthew Gilson.