Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Mystery Plays (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

"Mystery Play" has a long history, one largely unknown unless (like me) you happen to have earned a degree in theater at some point. Many might see this title of the Visceral Company's latest offering and think "Poirot" or "Sherlock Holmes" or maybe even "Columbo." Not unreasonably. Part of the raw cleverness of this show is how (to some extent) both intertwined one-acts that make up The Mystery Plays fulfill such hopes. After all, crimes have been committed, and detection does take place. But playwright Robert Aguirre-Sacasa also harkens back to the medieval works which enacted a religious or mystical mystery. Appropriate for a holiday season centered around a profound example of such, yes?

I think so.

At first the whole thing feels very Twilight Zone-esque. A narrator (Frank Blocker) in a shadow-laced dreamscape intones about life and mysteries. This dovetails (in a bit of humor I shall not ruin by describing) into the first play--that of filmmaker Joe Manning (Daniel Jimenez) confronted with deepeningly strange events one Christmas season. En route to visit his family, he strikes up a conversation with a stranger named Nathan (Michael Mraz). Minutes later, he wanders off the train during a stop--he doesn't know why--and fails to get back aboard in time. Soon, the train has some kind of horrible accident. Everyone on board dies. Everyone--except Joe. Who begins having strange experiences, like Nathan speaking to him, and his vision starting to fail. Worse, the police want to talk to him about what happened--noting there's an extra body in the wreckage no one's managed to identify. It matches
Joe's description.

Cue the spooky music, were this an episode of The Night Gallery or The Outer Limits. But this isn't television. We don't get a break for sponsors selling something reassuring like soap or mouthwash, with the comforting assurance that what's wrong can be fixed with the right product. No, the mystery only deepens as Joe himself grows physically more uncomfortable, feels increasingly (and fairly accurately) out of control from  his life. He asks for help from different people, including a friend and lawyer named Abby Gilley (Devereau Chumrau). Remember her.

The whole first act, titled "The Filmmaker's Mystery," builds to a series of answers--disturbing and strangely hopeful as well as horrifying.

The second act, "Ghost Children," follows Abby Gilley, whom we last saw getting on board a plane for Oregon. Now another mystery, just as deep, unveils before our eyes. Abby travels back to the town where she grew up, for the first time in years and  years. Why? To see her brother Ben (Alex Taber). Or maybe not. Certainly to come to terms, however, with memories of him and the reason he lives in a prison. One of the telling points is that never before has Abby read any of his letters to her. Yet she still has every single one. Unopened. Till now.

For her, the mystery plays out as she visits places she  used to know, memories spilling into the present and on stage. Exactly what happened that night? Why? Will Abby even agree to see Ben? Can she bring herself to? The supernatural makes a briefer appearance in this one, but it is there. Indeed, that fact ultimately adds a strange weight to the whole proceedings. We know, somehow, there's more at stake than the success or failure of a legal appeal. Well, we know that anyway. But the hint of preternatural forces swirling in the shadows, in the distance, gives a gravitas to this story of a soul trying to understand, and so to maybe heal.

Six actors do a marvelous job of portraying several different characters each, often of wildly different ages and types. Mraz for example does an extremely fine turn as a cab driver hired to take Abby around. And much should be said of Laura Julian who pulls off something very tricky indeed--playing very similar characters (middle-aged Jewish mother types) who nevertheless come across as quite different people!

Quality of performance and design and direction as well as writing made for a very moving and spooky tale of Christmas, of a darkness that only can exist because there's light, of forgiveness in all kinds of forms, but mostly of people wrestling with...mysteries.

The Mystery Plays can be seen each Friday and Saturday evening at 8pm until January 4, 2014. Two special matinees will perform at 3pm on December 29 and January 5. Performances are at the Lex Theatre, 6769 Lexington Avenue (near Highland and Lexington).

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