Theatre Review: An updated theological fanfiction in PARADISE LOST at Theatre Row
You don’t have to be religious (I’m culturally Buddhist with Unitarian Universalist spirituality) to particularly enjoy Paradise Lost at Theatre Row even if there isn’t much thought-provoking. Tom Dulack’s script about the biblical Fall of Man is “inspired” by John Milton’s 1667 epic poetry about the Genesis and curbs it with modern vernacular for a punchy effect.
Even the western secularists are mostly familiar with the Biblical Genesis, which Milton expanded upon as a theological fanfiction if you well (I mean, fanfiction, affectionately). The world’s first woman, Eve (Marina Shay, who plays her as a lovable dolt with a love for inquisitiveness) enters into existence in the Garden of Eden, doltishly musing about her new surroundings with some information planted (“I do not know how I know that”) in her brain, naming the birds and bugs to her delight and drinking in new sights, including her reflection in the water. She meets her destined soulmate, Adam (Robbie Simpson), the first man, from whose rib she was designed from. As the story goes, the fallen angel Lucifer (a stellar David Andrew Mcdonald), called Satan by the Heaven he was cast from, coaxes the curious Eve to bite into the forbidden fruit at the Tree of Knowledge, thus leading them to their banishment from the Garden and a life of pain and agony.
Modern slang can grate and I imagined script-wise that this Paradise Lost could be read as a sitcom, but Paradise Lost on stage achieves a balance without spiraling into sitcom and stays well within its mythical range. The cast delivers their performances at a pageant modulation without being too aloof. Anachronistic touches are serviceably laced in like Lucifer bearing coat-tailed 18th-century uniforms while his sidekick Beelzebub (a comedic Lou Liberatore, who should do more bits with Mcdonald) bears Spartan armor. This updated tale invokes many of the commonalities swimming in modern minds that may have been, intentionally or unintentionally, invoked in Milton’s text: Adam’s disproportionate power to Eve even as he lampshades it and tries to remain in proportion to an idea of equality, Satan questioning the will of the Creator, the “Tyrant” he calls Him, rather than just being naturally evil (though most of his anger is rooted in petty envy), and Eve questioning the perfection of the world and having a relatable desire for more. Some modern bits don’t land as much, such as domesticizing Lucifer’s relationship with his daughter-lover Sin (a witchy and fun Alison Fraser who never overdoes it), who acts like a spurned baby mama, which doesn’t add much contemporary insight other than to rib at the nature of gendered ancient stories with grimy and gross-out elements of incest and rape. In addition, Mel Johnson Jr. brings a guarded yet open-minded dignity to the Archangel Gabriel.
Director Michael Parva accomplished a cohesiveness it although some of the transitions are less snappier than others, such as when Eve and Adam comedically discover coitus fellowed by the invasive threat of Lucifer watching them (the burst of audience laughter seemed the least intentional there). Parva’s direction soars at decisive points such as Eve’s choreographed “awakening” when Lucifer enters her dream or when Adam crunches into the forbidden fruit out of devotion to Eve. Harry Feiner’s pastoral scenic design is well-framed by the tasteful and tactile projections by John Narun.
You don’t walk out of this modernized Paradise Lost with elevated sentiments or cerebral questions but you don’t mind watching its commitment to the familiar.
Paradise Lost is now playing at Theatre Row until February 23rd.