• David Dabbon

The Mysteries New York Times Article


In the Beginning, the Words of Many ‘The Mysteries’ Rewrites a Medieval Tradition


MARCH 28, 2014

The show that Ed Sylvanus Iskandar had in mind was a theatrical event of biblical proportions. To make it happen, this director needed four dozen playwrights.The task for each of them: Adapt a play from the medieval York Cycle, which dramatizes the Old and New Testaments, from “The Fall of the Angels” to “The Last Judgment.”“You just can’t deny how much these stories are a part of the fabric of modern society,” said Mr. Iskandar, 32, his posh accent a relic of his British boarding-school education. “I’m from freaking Indonesia. My family’s Buddhist. We still had a Bible around the house.”A broad spectrum of invited playwrights — including Amy Freed (“The Beard of Avon”), David Henry Hwang (“Kung Fu”) and Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) — took up the challenge. The result is “The Mysteries,” Mr. Iskandar’s latest riff on a classic form, which begins previews Thursday at the Flea Theater in TriBeCa.A cast of 54 — including a 19-member angel chorus — will perform 50 short plays over a projected five and a half to six hours, dinner and dessert breaks included. With the largest ensemble the Flea has ever featured, plenty of dance and the occasional fight scene, the show literally shakes the building.Photo19 actors are in the show’s angel chorus. CreditChester Higgins Jr./The New York TimesBilly Porter, the Tony-winning star of “Kinky Boots,” and Kirsten Greenidge (“Milk Like Sugar”) separately expressed interest in writing pieces with a gospel flavor. So they were made a team: words by Ms. Greenidge, music by Mr. Porter and his cousin Loren Kirkland.When Stephen Adly Guirgis, slated to write “The Crucifixion,” dropped out because his schedule became too tight, Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss,”“Ode to Joy”) took that commission in addition to the one he already had.José Rivera wrote a second play, too, but this one wasn’t adapted from the York Cycle. At a rehearsal, Mr. Rivera, the playwright (“Adoration of the Old Woman”) and screenwriter (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), was struck by the absence of any sermon for Jesus to give. So he started composing one then and there — “like a poem,” he said — on the back of an old program he had in his bag. “I wanted to write something where he got to express just how much beauty there is in the world, despite all the darkness,” Mr. Rivera said. That play, “Sermon of the Senses,” now ends the evening.Continue reading the main storyX CLOSEAs a child in England, Mr. Iskandar was taken to see the mystery plays in York. In medieval times, when a town would stage a cycle of Bible stories, responsibility for the plays was divided among its various craft guilds. In York, the shipwrights’ guild was in charge of “The Building of the Ark,” for example, while the butchers oversaw “The Death of Christ.” Actors performed the mystery plays on pageant wagons, which were pulled through the city.Mr. Iskandar said he didn’t really recall the performance at the 20th-century revival he saw, only the food and the social experience.Food and a purposefully welcoming atmosphere are integral to any Iskandar production — reflecting his view of theater as a kind of long-form hospitality, or what he calls his “socially immersive party aesthetic.” Dinner and dessert are included in the ticket price at the Flea, just as food and drink are part of the visitor’s experience at his Hell’s Kitchen loft, which is also the home of his theater company: Exit, Pursued by a Bear. Colleagues and friends are welcome to drop in anytime, and they do. Actors know they can stop by and nap if they need to.Continue reading the main story“People sort of fall in love with his warmth, generosity, his ‘Come, I’ll feed you’ kind of being,” Ms. Freed said. “It’s so disarming, because you go: ‘Where are the teeth? Where’s the calculation?’ He is what he seems to be.”She stopped herself. “I sound like his mother.” Pause. “I feel like his mother.”Mr. Iskandar has always had acolytes, said Ms. Freed, who taught him when he was an undergraduate, ravenously studying theater at Stanford University. But now, some of his devotees are rather high-profile. A few years ago, when Mr. Porter wanted to abandon a plan to play the title role in “King Lear” at the loft, Mr. Iskandar wouldn’t let him.“I tried to back out, like, a million times,” Mr. Porter said. “I had just come off of ‘Angels in America.’ I was assisting Michael Greif on the ‘Rent’ revival. My sister was having brain surgery. I was like, ‘And you want me to learn all of “Lear”?’ ”“He’s like, ‘Oh, you can do it, darling,’ ” Mr. Porter said, imitating Mr. Iskandar’s plummy tones. “ ‘You’ll be fine. Come over. I have some exercises for you.’ ”Mr. Whitty has been similarly loyal ever since Mr. Iskandar approached him two years ago, wanting to stage Mr. Whitty’s comedy “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler.”“I met Ed at a time when I was just so burned out on theater. I just couldn’t imagine going into it again,” Mr. Whitty said. But Mr. Iskandar was so persuasive that Mr. Whitty ended up playing Hedda opposite Mr. Porter.“It was transformative for me, just a complete shot of adrenaline. It reminded me, after so many years in commercial theater, why I love theater,” Mr. Whitty said.PhotoEd Sylvanus Iskandar directs all 50 short plays that make up the project.CreditChester Higgins Jr./The New York TimesHe wrote his new show, “Head Over Heels” — “set in vaguely Elizabethan times,” Mr. Whitty said, with music and lyrics from the Go-Go’s catalog — for Mr. Iskandar. When it has its world premiere next year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Mr. Iskandar will direct.At the Flea, “The Mysteries” will blend the austere with the abundant, unfolding on a bare set with hardly any props. But costumes, by Loren Shaw, will number 350. The music will often be lush, the choreography complex.Spectacle has become something of a niche for Mr. Iskandar. He generated an Off Off Broadway hit with his Flea debut in January 2012: Sean Graney’s“These Seven Sicknesses,” a five-hour contemporary condensation of seven Sophocles plays.That November, he was back at the theater with Ms. Freed’s “Restoration Comedy,” a three-and-a-half-hour costume extravaganza set to Scissor Sisters music.A year ago, the Flea’s artistic director, Jim Simpson, asked Mr. Iskandar to direct a festival of short Christmas plays. Mr. Iskandar declined but countered with the idea for “The Mysteries” and swiftly received a green light.“He’s the opposite of me, and so I love that,” said Mr. Simpson, who personally embraces the spare aesthetic of Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theater” yet encourages Mr. Iskandar’s riotous vision. “He’s a baroque romanticist, actually.”In Mr. Iskandar’s take on the Old and New Testaments, Jesus is a sexual being, and naked bodies may or may not be ornamented with gold leaf. The time is now or the near future. God, played by Matthew Jeffers, is 4 foot 2 and moody. Lucifer and the Angel Gabriel are played by women. The actors in “The Mysteries” are members of the Bats, the theater’s resident company. Most are in their 20s, and all are unpaid, working long hours for experience and exposure.Continue reading the main storyWith spring fashion, it's all about wearing your slogan on your sleeveAt Carven, the clothes are peppy and the colors popEtsy, the makeup countercultureContinue reading the main storyAdvertisementAlice Allemano, a new Bat, who plays Gabriel in “The Mysteries,” said she had been trying to find a through line for her character as she navigated the works of so many playwrights. Voices and perspectives differ from play to play, but she must make sense of Gabriel from start to finish.“I feel like I’m in the Olympics — the creating-character Olympics,” she said.Mr. Whitty described an inverse quandary. After writing his first draft of “The Last Supper,” he said, he “completely froze up” for a while, unsure how to fit his piece organically into the whole. A crucial task for the “Mysteries” collaborators — including Jill Rafson, the dramaturge; Chase Brock, the choreographer; and David Dabbon, the musical director — is to harmonize their playwrights’ disparate voices to tell a single story.“It’s sort of like each piece is part of a mosaic,” Mr. Rivera said. “I take it on faith that Ed knows how to construct this thing.”On Fat Tuesday, the night before Lent, the director was still figuring that out. But at his loft, after rehearsals there had ended, he was radiating pleasure.Beneath strings of lights, young actors from the “Mysteries” company lounged on pillow-strewn banquettes or stood with drinks in hand. Sugar Ray’s “Every Morning” poured from the speakers, and they sang along.The actors, who portray Jesus’ disciples, could have taken off when their work was done. Instead, they chose to stay and socialize — in Mr. Iskandar’s estimation, a sign of a successful rehearsal.“This is pure joy to me,” he said, sipping red wine and watching them fondly.Soon he disappeared into the kitchen to cook them a skillet of what he called Thai scramble: eggs mixed with bok choy and larb gai. The disciples, he said, were looking hungry.A version of this article appears in print on March 30, 2014, on page AR12 of the New York edition with the headline: In the Beginning, the Words of Many. Order Reprints|Today's Paper|Subscribe

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