Mysteries and Smaller Pieces
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
October 11, 2007
I believe that theatre will live on in some form as long as humans exist. It's stamped onto our creative drive. We often think and play in terms of theatre. It's part of what makes us human. So exploring what makes theatre theatre is like exploring what makes us human and that's what this show is all about.
First performed in 1964, Mysteries and Smaller Pieces is a pioneer of plays having no plot. All that is needed is people and reactions. That includes the performers as well as the audience. This show seeks to open up the relationship between performer and audience and it does so fairly well.
It begins with a stake in the ground. A man stands at attention for a squirmy 20 minutes or so while we watch in total silence. He's fully clothed in this performance though this wasn't always so back in the day. And nobody said anything the whole time. I started to think that this really could be it…Man stands expressionless…Curtain. But then the stomping begins and then the chanting and the glorious scream that silences the chaos. Then we go to pitch black and a beautiful, lamenting voice floats on air as stars appear on stage moving closer and closer until they reach out and pull you on stage. There, we chanted together for peace. We chanted for justice. We chanted for common sense. It was beautiful.
This is one of the most fascinating openings to a show that I've ever seen. It is so invigorating and suspenseful. In the second part of the show we see some extended theatre exercises such as facial expression games, tableaux, and sound and movement wheels. These moments are played very well—the performers are very creative and funny—but they never open these games up to the audience. Sure, it can be hard to get non-performing people to get up and create a sound and a movement to match it, but once one person does it others will follow. They get us up and chanting and humming in the first half of the show but they don't do it again.
The ending is horrifying. The whole cast bursts into the pains of death. Plague or starvation, I don't know, but they manifest horror. Their bodies are piled up.
The play says volumes about human creativity and weakness with few words. It ignores the conventional ideas of theatre and explores the raw inspiration of the performers. Judith Malina directs (with the company's managing director Gary Brackett) and performs in a very beautifully staged performance. They orchestrate sound, movement, and light with silence, stillness, and darkness into a show that brings joy and squelches impulses of apathy.
The cast is playful and warm. Their energy is cohesive and deliberate. They really make the show something to see. They create and execute some brilliant moments of spontaneity in formats that have become less experimental and more academic. Most of them seem genuinely in touch with their skills and tools as performers.
The Living Theatre is living theatre history. Over the past 40 years, this company has been highly influential in the direction that experimental theatre has taken. You should grab this opportunity to catch this ground-breaking piece created back when we all thought we could change the world. It may give you hope that you still can.