Paradise Lost, now extended through March 1, 2020
by Tom Dulack
inspired by John Milton
The Fellowship for Performing Arts
Director, Michael Parva
Set Designer, Harry Feiner
Costume Designer, Sydney Maresca
Lighting Designer, Phil Monat
Original Music & Sound Design, John Gromada
John Narun, Casting Director
Stephanie Klapper Casting, CSA
David Andrew Macdonald – Lucifer
Lou Liberatore – Beelzebub
Alison Fraser – Sin
Mel Johnson Jr. – Gabriel
Marina Shay – Eve
Robbie Simpson -Adam
Max McLean’s Fellowship for Performing Arts has been a part of the vital creative village among the non-profit theaters west of Ninth Avenue on 42nd Street for several years now, complementing the more recent and new plays at the Signature Theater, Playwrights Horizons, and the United Solo Festival, and especially the forgotten masterpieces produced by the Mint Theater Company. The Fellowship shows a similar inclination towards the past in the centrality of C. S. Lewis—scholar, novelist, and popular theologian in its programs. To explain these, as well as its overall mission, I’ll quote from its own statements:
- Founded by award-winning actor Max McLean, FPA is a not-for-profit New York City-based production company producing theatre from a Christian worldview to engage a diverse audience.
- In addition to an annual season in New York City, FPA tours its productions in major cities from coast to coast and internationally.
- FPA carefully selects works from great authors and themes that can articulate the Christian worldview in a way that is imaginative, multi-layered and relatable to audiences from any faith perspective, or none at all.
The Fellowship is especially admirable in that it pursues its outreach by mounting productions of impeccable quality. Anyone who loves good theater, regardless of their relationship to religion, will find their offerings rewarding. The shows I’ve seen have been consistently excellent for their rich, period-appropriate sets and costumes, strong, focused direction, and, above all, spot-on casting with outstanding actors; and the plentiful, diverse audiences I’ve seen at their home in Theater Row appreciate them warmly. (I should add that The Fellowship travel their productions literally all around the country.) Shadowlands captured perfectly the gamut of characters in Williams Nicholson’s play, which began life on BBC television, from Lewis himself and Joy Davidson to the loyal, but misogynistic dons. The Screwtape Letters was a masterpiece of adaptation by Max McLean and, providing a spectacular visualization of the relevant corners of hell and earth, that was theatrical in essence from foundations to crown, as well as two unforgettable performances.
It is both a sign of my respect and admiration for Mr. McLean’s work and a bracing perspective that I should be singing the Fellowship’s praises from a production I found problematic. Paradise Lost, described as “a fast-paced, witty and accessible modern retelling of John Milton’s classic story of humanity’s fall from grace written by Tom Dulack.” One should also note the ambiguous phrase “inspired by John Milton.” All the excellences of a Fellowship production were in full evidence—an impressive set, balancing cost-effective, but handsome material elements with gorgeous projections, and a superb cast who brought each turn, each phrase of the script into full life under Michael Parva’s expert direction.
David Andrew Macdonald played Lucifer, the fallen angel. Bitter but unbroken after the defeat of his army of rebel angels, Lucifer determinedly carries out his systematic plan to oppose God by spreading evil in world God has created. He is considered by many to be Milton’s masterstroke in the poem, its most vivid and deep character. Macdonald, as one would expect in a Fellowship production, was just right for the part. He pursued his seduction of Eve with the melancholy, even sullenness, of a defeated leader who craves power above all. Shining in his cleverness sufficiently to make himself attractive and believable to his mark, Eve, he inhabited his part completely. As Lucifer’s foil and aide-de-camp, Beelzebub, Lou Liberatore projected all the weariness of a damaged warrior, a more humble figure, unconvinced of the merit of his general’s grand scheme, but long used to taking orders and carrying them out. Alison Fraser clearly had good fun in her role as Sin, who with Lucifer, brought their hideous offspring Death into the world. She appeared not as a semi-serpentine creature, but as an aging, pox-ridden whore, her deformity symbolized by the scooter, decorated with Goth ornaments, which she uses to travel around the cosmos. Marina Shay’s Eve, in consort with David Andrew Macdonald’s Lucifer, did more than anything to win us over to the play’s perspective. She played Eve as the all-American girl, but with with the difference of being more intelligent than anyone else (that amounting to one person only at that point) and gifted with an adventurous curiosity—along with a naïve credulity in her corrupter, above all, since it suited her own inclinations. She set the tone for the endgame, because who could help liking her Eve? And most of us, at least in the wicked Northeast, would rather be like her than stay out of trouble. Robbie Simpson’s Adam was a convincing mate for her, handsome, limited, obedient, and also All-American. It fell to Gariel, Mel Johnson Jr., Gabriel, to lead them gently, but impassively out of Eden—a warm, dignified, and unstuffy performance.
I could not, however, quite grasp the purpose of Mr. Dulack’s script, which retold the story in Genesis with some details, some perspective, and some words taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Was it to remind audiences of the final phase of the fundamental creation narrative of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—accounting for 55% of the world’s population—through the lens of John Milton’s classic epic poem? Or was it to make them better acquainted with a work, which, once universally regarded as central to the Anglophone literary canon, has suffered particularly under the decline of education and the no-longer-recent demand for a more global and democratic replacement for the “Western canon,” a concept despised in some quarters and exploited for political advantage in others?
The broad, vernacular tone of the script smacked of family entertainment, with allusions to sexual matters presented in the jokey, caricatural way now considered acceptable for children, at least in the Northeast and the West Coast. The treatment of Eve seemed to have been gently diluted, more with a view to avoiding offense or controversy among the feminists in the audience. The actress who played her, Marina Shay, put this to brilliant and affecting use in her performance. Nonetheless, there didn’t seem to be any deeper reason, either theological or psychological, for this departure from the seventeenth century model. In both Milton and Dulack Eve is endowed with a more active intelligence than Adam, and it is her curiosity that leads her to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. As this unfolds, we get the idea that the desires and delusions that lead to the Fall are basically human nature and that the Fall was inevitable.
My primary criticisms concern language and the adaptation of the poem. The diction of the play seemed to follow an undisciplined, unconsidered lurching between contemporary colloquialisms (the primary linguistic level), stilted archaisms, and quotations from the poem. If the play is meant to promote Paradise Lost, it won’t achieve it with this hodge-podge of English high and low, present and past. There is a didactic element in Paradise Lost which appears both in its overall argument and in numerous asides in the narrative which explain details which Milton believes may not be familiar to readers. These asides have a long tradition going back to “Homer,” who occasionally explains facts about the heroic age which are different from the realities of his own time, for example the extraordinary strength of the heroes at Troy. There were also specifically didactic poems, like Hesiod’s Works and Days or Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. (These shared the same kind of verse with epics like the Iliad and the Aeneid, the dactylic hexameter, and ancient critics did not regard didactic poetry as an independent genre.) So, when Gabriel tells Eve about the sex life of angels in Milton’s verse, it seems to fit perfectly in its place and flows by, supported by literary precedent. In the prose dialogue between Gabriel and Eve in the play it sticks out in a way that seems a bit prurient. (To me this is a matter of style and good taste, nothing else.) Altogether, there are a lot of these explanatory glosses that made their way into the play. Some are even repeated, if I remember correctly, and they come across, smacking of a Sunday School textbook.
The world would be a better place if more people read Paradise Lost. At least the English language we hear and read day after day would improve. At a basic level it is not a difficult book to read. Most people know the story it tells, and its diction, if formal and of an earlier age, is quite accessible—but above all the vehicle for some of the most beautiful poetry in any language. Milton’s vivid descriptions and imagery have inspired the richest tradition of illustrations of all literary works. One can relate to it through the images of Blake, Doré, or Martin, as one would a picture Bible. One can even read it and, like C. S. Lewis himself, speaking at the beginning of the 1940s,1 accept its theology—let’s say its Christian outlook—as theologically orthodox. On the other hand the poem, as what we call a secondary epic—that is, an extended narrative poem written in the epic tradition, showing a full, meticulous, and open attention to the several models that came before it—rewards students, even undergraduates with its rich literary texture lying beneath the surface. Its poet, too, as a “freethinking believer” in a Calvinist environment was anything but orthodox in his eclectic theology and reading of the Bible, as scholarship published since 1950 has shown. In this double parallax of multiple readings, Paradise Lost is both simple and complex, straighforward and sincere, but supremely sophisticated—one of those classics that keep coming back to us over a lifetime of reading.
I found more promise in the first possibility mentioned above, certainly more that was of interest. For a good bit of the performance Milton retreated into the background, and I experienced the play as something like a modern update of the medieval mystery plays, which conveyed the narrative of the Old and New Testament to the illiterate, although I’m sure people who could read enjoyed them too, especially after a few tankards of ale. As the story unfolded, I wondered how that rare person who had not heard the arch-familiar story before might respond to it. And Messrs. Dulack and Parva and the cast all told it with clarity and strength. At the conclusion, the Fall doesn’t seem so much a tragedy as the inevitable development of human nature. When Adam and Eve stand together facing the rough world outside Eden, they appear to have their own faculties and each other to rely on. There is no wailing and gnashing of teeth. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s purpose was to create a poem with a powerful narrative and humanly relatable characters. In this respect the work is as much the product of humanism as Christianity. And it was this positive view that Mr. Dulack asserted at the end of his play.
For all my complaints, the play brought me back to Milton, and I was not bored for a moment. And the latest good news is that the run has been extended through March 1.
- C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, London, New York, Toronto, 1942 ↩