Paradise Lost

photo: Jeremy Daniel

John Milton wrote Paradise Lost in 1667. It’s based on the Genesis story from the rebellion of Lucifer to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. The story is greatly enhanced in over 10,000 lines of verse. Lucifer and the paradisiacal couple have distinct personalities: Lucifer is charismatic, Adam infatuated by Eve, and Eve, most interestingly, curious and intelligent.

Fellowship for Performing Arts, one of my favorite NYC companies, produces theater from an intelligent Christian perspective. The company is presenting a stage adaptation of Paradise Lost by Tom Dulack. Its six characters - Lucifer (“Satan” is his “hell-name”), Beelzebub, Sin (that is, sin herself), Adam, Eve and Gabriel - make the Genesis myth personal. The domestic story of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost was a new sort of material for an epic. This production, hardly epic by any standard, personalizes the entire myth from the fall of Lucifer to the expulsion from Paradise more than Milton ever could.

And yet this isn’t domestic melodrama. Mr. Dulack’s dialogue is heightened, not colloquial, prose, and the cast does a terrific job of speaking it trippingly on the tongue. The lines are simultaneously personal and grand. From time to time we hear echoes of the source material: in the play’s best moment, Satan realizes “Whichever way I fly is hell as I myself am hell.” And we hear him tell his side-kick, Beelzebub “It is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” We even hear that famous line (not entirely relevant here) from Milton’s Sonnet 19: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Wisely, Mr. Dulack has respected the Milton. The story doesn’t deviate from the familiar tale of don't-talk-to-strangers. 

All the cast is very fine indeed: David Andrew Macdonald, particularly, as the haughty, charming Lucifer (we’re not surprised Eve is seduced by him); Lou Libatore as Beelzebub (a comic character with a New York dialect); Alison Fraser as Sin (she’d be comic in her fright wig if she weren’t, well, sin); Robbie Simpson as Adam (simple and admirable, like us); Mel Johnson Jr. as Gabriel (avuncular and transcendent with his gorgeous wings).

Mr. Dulack has chosen to focus on Eve. As in Milton, she’s curious and intellectual. When Gabriel speaks of God’s “boundless love and magnanimity”, she wonders if it extends to Satan. As he leaves, she tells him “I’ll do my best to keep my waking mind from wandering into conjecture.” Marin Shay plays her wonderfully, with commitment and clarity.

Henry Feiner’s set is very nice. The projection on the backdrop starts with that famous God-creates-Adam scene from the Sistine and moves on to hell and Paradise. When our archetypical ancestors are expelled, leaved drop sadly from Paradise’ trees. The Tree of Life an the Tree of Knowledge, however, are disappointing.

This Paradise Lost is a fable, not a theological workout. When Eve mentions “decisions freely arrived at”, we might think that Mr. Dulack is revisionist, but no - he has Gabriel tell Eve that, as part of her punishment, she will bear children “in great pain and suffering”, paraphrasing Milton. He even uses the phrase “original sin”, which Milton does not. Mercifully, he's eschewed God’s line in Milton’s sentencing of Eve, “to thy Husbands will - Thine shall submit”.

Paradise Lost lacks the intellectual beef of the other FPA’s productions that I’ve seen. The story, even in this adaptation, is too familiar for that. At any rate, even with his characterization of Eve, Milton has nothing to say to the 21st century. We’ve made some progress since 1667.

Still, the production is smart, entertaining and meticulously executed. Indeed, it provoked a lively and educated audience talk-back. Good for FPA!

Steve Capra

January 21, 2020

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