Review – The Mysteries (Yiimimangaliso) – Isango Portobello at the Garrick Theater

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Last night J and I went to see Isango Portobello’s current production, “The Mysteries” (Yiimimangaliso). I’ve been very excited about this show since seeing them two years ago in their Olivier award winning Magic Flute as well as the wonderful and highly original adaptation ofA Christmas Carol. I figured, hey, Christian “Mystery” play, whatever, right? With the energy of this troupe, the great singing and dancing and original vision, it would still be a good night out.

Two caveats before my review: I have had a bacterial lung infection for a month (thus the near total lack of reviews as I’ve been too sick to go out) and am not a member of the faith celebrated in this show. That said, I got a really bad feeling when I realized I was walking into The Garrick Theater, home of the infamous boots of Zorro incident – a theater with sightlines whose shortcomings are only matched by The Palace.

The show very much stuck to the Biblical tales from which the original Mystery plays were made – God (a woman, Pauline Malefane) casts Lucifer (Noluthando Boqwana, a sexy woman who wore a red leatherette jacket and pants over a red and black bustier), God creates Adam, Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark, Isaac and Abraham, the Begats, and then a bunch of stuff from the New Testament. A woman in the audience complained during the interval that she wished they’d provided a list of the stories so she had known what was going on; I was kind of surprised she wasn’t familiar with them (given that I was – they’re all very popular subjects for paintings at the very least) but I admit that with the show being done about 1/3 to 1/2 in languages other than English, if you weren’t familiar with the stories there would have been a whole lot of confusion about what was going on on stage.

Still, even the language issues couldn’t compensate for a certain lack of zip for this show. I imagine that someone who was really captured by the subject matter (in a way I never could be) would have found it very powerful to see Africans telling the story of the Bible with so much singing and dancing and general enthusiasm; but what I wanted was an original, powerful theatrical presentation that pulled me in. I think it would have been better in a more intimate space, such as the Young Vic (where I saw the other two shows) or Wilton’s Music Hall, where this production was first presented in 2001. But the story itself just seemed kind of dry and fragmented. The shows Isango Portobello presented two winters back were adaptations, but they took artistically sound theater and catapulted them into new heights; this show started with source material that I think very rightly does not get produced much and never in a commercial environment.

While I very much hope the company is successful in this tour, it is my fear that The Mysteries will continue to struggle, and this pains me because I consider the members of this troupe to be highly skilled performers. The scenes where they all raised their voice in song, as when Mary was being told of her incipient pregancy by the angel, were beautiful, and the scene of Jesus having his feet washed by a “fallen woman” touching, but unfortunately moments in which I was engaged were few and far between. Still, I think there is an audience out there who would enjoy a family-friendly show that I thought of as a bit of a cross between The Lion King and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. If this is you, or if you just really like Isango Portobello and want to support them, LastMinute.com has got good seats, but make sure if you’re on the ground floor you sit no further back than row Q.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, September 18th, 2009. The Mysteries continues at the Garrick through October 3rd. And I don’t know if it’s just me but I thought having the musical director cast herself as both God and Jesus showed just a tiny bit of egotism. A more positive review can be read on the Financial Times.)

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