The medieval passion plays (12th-14th centuries) were designed by the clergy to instill a sense of the wonder and awe within an illiterate populace, basing works on tales from the Old and New Testaments. The Actors’ Gang, under the highly creative staging of Brian Kulick in “The Mysteries,” has infused these tales with a comedia-esque zest that occasionally blurs the intent of these biblical tales, but certainly does involve the audience in its zany machinations.
Richard Hoover’s four-walled set, which separates most of the audience from the action, facilitates and dominates the production. It provides a purple-cushioned seating area within the walls that allows about a quarter of the audience to sit within the ensemble’s playing area. The dramatic impact of this seating arrangement is quickly realized as the houselights dim and a tall man rises from among this sequestered audience, illuminated by a single spotlight from directly above. God (Tom Fitzpatrick) is in the house and he quickly guides the ensemble and the audience through the creation and emergence of nude Adam (Alessandro Mastrobuono) and Eve (Blaire Chandler).
Despite their bareness, there is a humorless temerity to the relationship of Adam and Eve as Mastrobuono and Chandler don’t exude much comfort with one another or facility for the dialogue. The proceedings liven up immensely when vengeful Satan (Gary Kelley) makes his appearance and eventually does battle with God and his chief angel Gabriel, played with a captivating quirkiness by Angela Berliner.
Covered with small shelves holding black crows, the back wall of Hoover’s set becomes the backdrop for the granddaddy of all sibling rivalries, pitting Cain (Ken Elliott) against his brother Abel (Berliner). Elliott is quite mirthful as he attempts to justify his shortchanging of God when it comes time for Cain to hand over his tithing offering. He segues believably into the rage that eventually leads to the killing of ever-earnest Abel.
The action gets quite vaudevillian during Noah’s flood, played out in an inflatable raft in front of the stage right wall. Above and behind the wall are seated audience members (including this reviewer) who are instructed to squirt water into the raft from provided squeeze bottles on cue from Gabriel. As an overburdened Noah (Brent Hinkley) and his abrasive-to-the-max wife (Patti Tippo) fight the elements, the audience actually becomes quite enthusiastic with their participation, almost ignoring Gabriel’s cue to stop.
Highlight of the first act is God’s testing of Abraham (Robert Dorfman), who is commanded to kill his only son Isaac (Eddie Tyclus Robinson) to prove his obedience to God. Dorfman magnificently communicates Abraham’s horrified ambivalence. Robinson evolves perfectly from childish confusion to terror-filled resolve that his father must obey God’s commands. Kulick masterfully stages the scene so Fitzpatrick’s God and his company of angels are never more than inches away from controlling the resolution of Abraham’s actions.
There is a much lighter tone in act two, which opens with Dario Fo’s farcical “Raising of Lazarus.” The action centers on the entrepreneurial efforts of a conniving Gravedigger (Kelley), who charges spectators an admission fee to witness the miracle of Lazarus being raised out of his grave and given new life by Jesus. With carnival barker-like pizzazz, Kelley’s Gravedigger also provides chairs and refreshments.
This scene seamlessly transitions to Borislav Pekic’s “The Miracle of Bethney,” a screwball comedy that pits a risen Lazarus (Fitzpatrick) against the High Priests (Mastrobuono and Hinkley) who find this miracle so troublesome to their authority that they quickly put Lazarus to death again. Naturally, Lazarus comes to life and works out an ingenious plan with his faithful servant Hamri (Robinson) to break this cycle of torment that is being inflicted on him.
The high point of the second act is Jesus’ (Kelley) interrogation by Pontius Pilate (Dorfman) as imagined by Mikhail Bulgakov. Dorfman captures the inadequacy of this Roman bureaucrat to deal with the simple logic of Jesus. Dorfman’s Pilate exudes a believable relief when he decides he doesn’t have to kill Jesus. This relief turns into a palpable rage when Jesus won’t let him off the hook, orchestrating his own condemnation by declaring God as the supreme authority over all humanity, even the Roman emperor.
The production is facilitated by the mood filled lighting of Andrea Housh, the evocative sounds of David Robbins and the simple, neutral costuming of Christal Weatherly.