Revel-ing in 'The Mysteries'

To imagine the experience of watching one of the great medieval drama cycles, think of a combination of a Rose Bowl parade, the half-time show at a football game, and the community fervor stirred by a Fourth of July celebration.

The subject matter of these day-long presentations, which began c. 1350, was nothing less than the evolution of the world, from Creation to the Last Judgment, based on narrative from the Old and New Testaments.

The Boston-based troupe Revels Inc. and Shakespeare & Company of Lenox, Mass., have co-produced a revival of one of the oldest medieval drama cycles from England, "The Mysteries: The Nativity," running through March 12 at the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama Building. Patrick Swanson of the Revels and Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Company serve as artistic co-directors of the production.

When Shakespeare was a child, many villages and towns were still staging these cycle dramas annually. The casts mingled heavenly personages with real-life characters based on the townsfolk.

The actors were members of the local guilds, who were given assignments appropriate to their work. Thus shipwrights took on the story of Noah. The unidentified playwrights endowed these biblical tales with familiar jokes, often making the shepherds into rascals who mixed humor with their devotion as they followed the star of Bethlehem to the infant Jesus.

Mary was portrayed as a simple girl of the town in contrast with the Angel of the Annunciation, who back in the Middle Ages was probably draped in white robes with huge wings and placed on a high platform to represent Heaven. The actors were men only, taking both female and male parts, a tradition extending into the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

The plays were written in verse in the vernacular, not the Latin of the church liturgy, interspersed with music, song, and dance. They were banned in England when Elizabeth came to the throne in the 16th century as part of the campaign to silence the conflict between the Church of Rome and the leaders of the Reformation.

In 1985, British playwright Tony Harrison took four English cycles: the York, Chester, Wakefield, and Coventry traditions, and rolled them into a three-part presentation for the Royal National Theatre. The Boston production is based on his script.

Mr. Swanson and Ms. Packer use the huge space of the Cyclorama to replicate a theatrical setting in which performers and audience could mix.

The Cyclorama is covered by a high dome, reaching three stories above a brick-covered floor. "The Nativity" unfolds at its center, with the audience seated on scaffolding on two sides but encouraged to mingle with the actors. One high platform at 12 o'clock holds the musicians and choir; Herod's palace and other biblical scenes are placed opposite.

Heaven, where God stands to speak to the characters, is represented by a pulpit that ratchets up and down from a small forklift truck. Swanson not only drives it, but he moves among the actors as stagehand, prompter, and general master-of-ceremonies. Other locales, such as Paradise, are moved on and off the stage on wheels.

The company of 50 actors and singers is made up of professional and amateur performers, an appealing mlange that follows the medieval practice of bringing the action up close and personal for the audience. The modern working clothes for the actors sometimes are replaced by sumptuous period costumes, such as the robes and trains of the Three Kings and the angels.

Acting style veers from crisp oratory by the authoritative Nick Plakias, cast as God, to heartbreaking realism in Ted Kasanoff's portrayal of Abraham. Larry Nathanson as a schlemiel of a Noah, Lisa Wolpe as an overwrought Lucifer, and Paula Langton as a Bronx housewife-style Mrs. Noah, lead an excellent company of actors who take on a variety of roles over the three-hour performance.

Some of the surprising decisions by Swanson and Packer include casting a woman as Lucifer, and making Herod into an Elvis Presley look-alike, la Broadway musical "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Under the musical direction of George Emlen, a series of choral songs, solos, and instrumental passages enhance the biblical chronology with a triumphant score. Starting with the Creation of the World, through the retelling of Old Testament tales of Adam and Eve, the Killing of Abel, Noah's Ark, and Abraham and Isaac, into the New Testament events leading up to the birth of Jesus, the action is punctuated and accompanied by music that ranges from old English folk tunes to gospel and rock.

"The Mysteries: The Nativity" is an ambitious modern staging of a great piece of dramatic literature from a long-ago era. Let's hope the Boston production is seen more widely, or at least, continued from year to year.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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