When a playwright adapts a famous, well-known story for the stage the problem becomes how to tell it in a new way that makes it seem unfamiliar and fresh. Otherwise, why bother retelling it once again? Unfortunately, Tom Dulack’s Paradise Lost, “inspired by the poem by John Milton,” retells the story of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven into Hell, and the eventual banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden without any surprises. Using only contemporary language, Dulack’s play lifts the skeletal plot of Milton but lacks the poetry, as well as those elements which made this epic controversial in the 17th century (rejection of the divine right of kings, embracing divorce and marriage equality, etc.) It resembles a Sunday Bible sermon or dramatization meant for youth.
While the play could be called a “pretty’ dramatization, it is difficult to see who is the target audience. Young people would be bored as the scenes go on too long, while adults will not hear anything they don’t already know. The cast is generally excellent but they aren’t given a great deal to do. The play begins among the fires of Hell where Lucifer, commander-in-chief of the rebel angels, and his second-in-command Beelzebub have been falling for nine days and nights. Sin, Lucifer’s daughter and the mother of his child Death, turns up on a motorized scooter, and reveals that she has been entrusted with the key to the gates of Hell. When they hear about the New World created by the Lord with new inhabitants Adam and Eve, Lucifer decides to sneak out of Hell and corrupt them in Eden.
Majority of the play takes place in the Garden of Eden where the beauteous Eve has just turned up to Adam’s delight. Eve finds that there are two apple trees and luckily eats from the Tree of Life, not the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. Lucifer invades Eve’s dreams only to be driven off by the Archangel Gabriel. While Gabriel arranges for the garden to be patrolled in order to capture the fiend, Lucifer returns in the garb of an angel, and reminds Eve of her dream in which she ate an apple from the Tree of Knowledge and was able to fly and understand everything. He convinces her that the angels in Heaven do not always agree with the Creator. When Adam discovers that she has eaten an apple from the forbidden tree, he decides to also eat one in order not to be separated from her, leading to their mutual expulsion from Eden by Gabriel.
Most impressive are the scenic elements by Harry Feiner (set design), John Narun (projection design) and Phil Monat (lighting design). Hell contains a huge red scrim of mountains surrounding a pool of fire in which flames continually leap up, while The Garden of Eden is a bower simply dripping with flowers. Sydney Maresca’s costumes range from the amusing (Lucifer dressed as a World War I British soldier in a torn white uniform with gold epaulettes and red trim, Beelzebub in the battle dress of a Roman legionnaire with one broken wing and one wing intact, etc.) and the bland (Adam and Eve in flesh colored nylon underclothes.) John Gromada’s sound design includes trumpets as well as snatches of the celestial chorus from Boito’s opera, Mefistofele.
While most of the actors are fine under Michael Parva’s direction, they cannot keep the adaptation from feeling simplistic rather than comic, unlike Bock and Harnick’s The Apple Tree which covers the same material in witty musical fashion. As the cunning and devious Lucifer, David Andrew Macdonald runs the gamut of emotions, revealing classical training. Two-time Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser is delightful as the wry and ironic Sin, while Tony Award nominee Lou Liberatore is wasted as Lucifer’s henchman, Beelzebub.
Mel Johnson Jr.’s Archangel Gabriel speaks with authority and is always a pleasure to listen to as he describes Heaven and the proscriptions for the inhabitants of Eden. Though naïve and airy, Eve as played by Marina Shay maintains variety in her performance as a young woman fascinated by her surroundings. Only Adam as written by Dulack and played by Robbie Simpson seems one-dimensional in his depiction of a happy man head over heels in love with his mate, but rather too placid to be real.
In adapting John Milton, Tom Dulack gave himself a difficult task as the poet’s dense blank verse is not suitable for dialogue. In attempting a modernized version, he has simplified the story to a very low level so that it has no surprises other than modern trappings (a scooter, a mike, a telephone, etc.) However, rather than adding to the experience, they diminish it. Fellowship for Performing Arts has given Paradise Lost a first-rate physical production but unfortunately the script lacks any new wrinkles to engage our interest. Milton may have been the initial inspiration but not much of his masterpiece is left in this 21st century dramatization.
Paradise Lost (extended through March 1, 2020)
Fellowship for Performing Arts
Theatre Three at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission