Brian Kulick steals a march on Mary Zimmerman with this quirky, minimalist staging of selections from the medieval British mystery plays, set alongside some 20th-century variants on the same idea. The Classic Stage Co.’s new artistic director is certainly not guilty of stylistic plagiarism, of course. It’s just that various elements of the production — a historic text, a small cast playing multiple roles, a seriocomic tone and an artfully spare design — inevitably bring to mind Zimmerman’s aesthetic, which has been widely exposed at regional theaters and in Gotham in recent years.
The first act is devoted to selections from the York and Wakefield cycles of plays depicting tales from the Bible. The mystery plays, while based on liturgical writings, were performed in a secular environment and infused with touches of humor and more earthbound, recognizably human characterization. Thus Kulick’s jokey staging — to represent the Flood, performers fling buckets of water at Noah and his wife — is somewhat in keeping with the spirit of the originals.
The selection of texts begins with the Creation, natch, and moves through the fall of Adam and Eve — played by Jennifer Roszell and Chandler Williams as clueless adolescents — to the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, before concluding the first act with the birth of Jesus. In the second act Kulick turns to 20th century interpretations of Christ’s life, mostly of a skeptical or satirical bent, by Dario Fo, Borislav Pekic and Mikhail Bulgakov.
The acting by an exuberant ensemble of nine tends to be broad and loud, often simultaneously. Given the company’s intimate digs, it hardly seems necessary to bellow so relentlessly. Perhaps the performers are paying tribute to performing tradition (the mystery plays were originally performed by guilds out of doors); in any case, the result is a bit wearying.
Mark Wendland’s spare set, a hay-covered playing space surrounded by long wooden tables that are rearranged in various configurations, is simple and effective. And Kevin Adams’ handsome, flexible lighting occasionally infuses the production with a shimmering air of, well, mystery, that it could use a bit more of. The evening’s concluding image, for example, is unexpectedly moving, as golden light rises and fades on Adam, Eve and their fellow sinners, rescued from damnation by Jesus’ martyrdom, stepping into paradise.
Oddly, while the naturalistic representation of these mythic figures may once have proved to imbue in their audiences a deeper belief in their authenticity, it tends to have the opposite effect in this relentlessly secular age. Kulick’s whimsically contemporary approach to the texts is somewhat deflating, and even nonbelievers may be left yearning for a more impassioned approach. You don’t have to believe in the literal truth of the Bible to wish to see its characters and incidents interpreted in a theatrically affecting way.