Court Theatre


Court Theatre

God’s a hell of a storyteller, but he’s not much of a writer. Somehow those who took down his words managed to turn fantastic stories about wonderful characters into rigorous Sunday-school reading exercises. Court Theatre is trying to change that by resurrecting the medieval mystery plays that mined the Bible stories for both their moral and entertainment value, blazing through the Old and New Testaments in long dramatic performances that used contemporary references to deliver the Lord’s messages in a way members of all social classes could understand.

Given that tickets for Court Theatre’s marathon performances of The Mystery Cycle: Creation and The Mystery Cycle: The Passion are 40 to 50 bucks on nights when they play together (they usually rotate in repertory), we may assume that this form of God’s wisdom is now available only to those willing to pay through the nose for it. Perhaps Adam and Eve paid more for the fruits of knowledge, but they didn’t have to sit through a messy three-hour performance that uses expensive gizmos instead of intelligence to get its points across. While Nicholas Rudall’s production of Bernard Sahlins’s adaptation may be faithful to the spirit of the original mystery plays, it is frequently shallow and trivializes the lives of characters who have inspired great works of literature throughout the ages.

The revival of last season’s big hit Creation, which starts with God and ends with his son, trucks through the Old Testament at light speed, ticking off Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Noah and his wife as if they were items on a shopping list. The tone is cheeky and irreverent, reminiscent of both Mel Brooks’s “Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man” routine and an elementary-school pageant. Noah and his wife are the Bickersons of biblical times, and God as played by Matt De Caro is a mugging wiseass whose test of Abraham’s faith is tossed off as a perverse practical joke.

The rapid-fire treatment of these stories doesn’t allow for much character development or dramatic intrigue. And the actors are crushed under the weight of splashy musical numbers and nifty strobe and spotlight effects. The songs are overmiked to the point of unintelligibility, and next to a forklift in the cavernous Rockefeller Chapel even God begins to look pretty small.

The anachronistic contemporary references that allow God to appear on earth with a hard hat and a lunch box and Cain and Abel to look like a couple of dust-bowl refugees from a Steinbeck novel seem arbitrary. With the introduction of Joseph and Mary, Rudall and Sahlins look like they’re ready to take a breath and give us a story with real characters from beginning to end. But then King Herod’s son enters as a sleazy lounge singer in a tuxedo, and King Herod’s minions enter dressed like ghouls from American Gladiators, and the drama that seemed to be building collapses again. More loud music and overmiked muddle left the poor tech guy shaking his head and talking to himself disgustedly in full view of the audience on opening night.

What emerges is sanitized and jokey, more superficial than fluff like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Two by Two. It has the sense of cloyingly feel-good children’s theater and very little drama or mystery.

Equally superficial but much more successful dramatically is The Passion, which takes us from where Creation leaves off up to the crucifixion and Christ’s resurrection. The show put me in mind of a high school buddy who planned to draw a comic book called “The Good News Bible.” “In my version Jesus gets away,” he told me, describing pictures of a cross-wielding Jesus yelling “Take that, you Roman!” In the Court Theatre adaptation the struggle between Jesus and Lucifer plays like a superhero comic-book battle between Superman and Lex Luthor or Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

The Passion is certainly problematic. The distracting gizmos and poor acoustics that hampered Creation are also here. But by concentrating on the life of one man, Sahlins was able to construct a play that’s reminiscent of a traditional heroic drama instead of random snippets from the good book.

At least The Passion has the standard elements of drama. We have a protagonist and an antagonist with clearly defined traits and goals, and we have a number of three-dimensional supporting characters who give the stories some dramatic importance. Philip Johnson’s subtle, understated performance as Jesus emphasizes his character’s human qualities. Johnny Lee Davenport’s Lucifer is wonderfully charismatic, embodying the pleasing shape the devil often takes, and Kyle Colerider-Krugh shows us a human, guilt-ridden Judas. And here the musical numbers underscore the emotions of the play. Granted, it’s annoying to see Pontius Pilate dressed up like some warmongering third-world dictator and a clean-shaven Jesus Christ in a Jay Gatsby outfit–and the final tug-of-war scene with Good triumphing over Evil is a little much even by biblical standards. But The Passion is still quite entertaining in parts.

The problem is that though it tells its story fairly well it lacks emotional punch. And though well acted, it’s too much of a skim job. When your source material includes some of the greatest stories ever told, you’re expected to come up with something more than one messy, mediocre play and one passably entertaining play. When you have miracles and walking on water and people turning into pillars of salt and flights into Egypt and plagues and love and deception and war and prophets and sinners and saints, you shouldn’t need all kinds of cheesy special effects to make your story memorable, for God’s sake.

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