LOS ANGELES—According to the old Commie joke, a cub reporter for the Daily Worker runs into the newsroom shouting, “Holy cow, did you see that terrible accident outside between a motorcycle and a Chevrolet sedan!”
“Throw a class angle on it,” replies the editor, “and we’ll run it.”
So what’s this nice Jewish boy writing in the People’s World about a modern dance adaptation of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost about God and Satan, Adam and Eve, the Son of God, and a host of critters both angelic and devilish? Where’s the class angle?
I have to confess that the main reason I came to see Paradise Lost is that it’s the latest production of the muscularly pathbreaking Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble (NMA), which gave us last year’s thrilling update on Sophocles’ treatment of PTSD, Ajax in Iraq. Their collective work expresses the most supreme unity of intellect and physical exertion that I have ever seen in the theatre. Opening night was actually postponed a week to give the performers extra time to perfect the hour-long show.
English poet John Milton lived from 1608 to 1674. Already by 1652 he had gone totally blind, yet he wrote Paradise Lost entirely by dictation to aides. The first version, published in 1667, contained over 10,000 lines of blank verse. A second edition, appearing the year of his death, reorganized the epic into the form in which we know it now, but did not add much. The author’s purpose, stated at the beginning, was to “justify the ways of God to men.” A plot summary of the epic poem can be found here.
In brief, the narrative recounts the prehistory of Adam and Eve, a time when the rebellious Satan tried to overthrow God and was defeated and banished to Hell. Then God fashions Adam and Eve, and Satan comes to their carefree Garden of Eden to poison God’s newest and most wonderful creation. After the expulsion, the now not so happy, but knowledgeable pair erect altars to God and to the Son of God, who is prefigured in the story. In this dance iteration, aside from Father God, we also have Mother God.
And here, actually, is where the class angle of Paradise Lost does come in. Aside from being considered by many scholars as the greatest epic poem in the English language, what are its politics? Milton was quite the radical of his day, a pamphleteer against corruption in the Anglican Church and the tyranny of King Charles. As a good Puritan, Milton rejected the ostentation of the Pope claiming the mantle of Vicar of God. Indeed, in his view, any person or thing, whether an idolatrous altar or a monarch ruling by divine right, was unworthy of receiving the special attention that befitted only God. He can be seen as a precursor to the American republic a century later, which banished king, a royal class, and a privileged place for religion in public life.
The show features highly athletic movement—including acrobatics, rope swings, chains, aerial contortion, and even a climbing wall, along with video, a composed and curated score, partnering and acting by a cast of fifteen—to wordlessly tell the story. It’s a powerfully physical form of ballet, a kind of modern-day Spartacus, whose lead choreographer/creator/director/producer/NMA co-artistic director Jones (Welsh) Talmadge plays the role of Satan. NMA co-artistic director Laura Covelli also co-directed the production.
Digital animation effects contribute a painterly, otherworldly atmosphere in which God wields a handheld gizmo like a magic wand to display his awesome powers. Occasionally, he’ll let his Son (Zachary Reeve Davidson), and even Adam (Leslie Charles Roy Jr.) play with this toy, just to provide a taste of what it feels like to create something. The projections are especially useful for depicting such critical items in this tale as the tree of knowledge with its forbidden fruit. We see Adam and Eve (Alina Bolshakova) actually climbing the tree using the divots on the wall. Whether accidental or purposeful (I kind of hope the latter), Adam is an African-American from Corpus Christi, and Eve comes from Riga, Latvia. That’s where our multicolored human race comes from!
Unfolding the course of dissension between the first couple after they’ve eaten from the tree, we are suddenly but briefly transposed into a 1950s kitchen, where Satan and Sin engage in almost unspeakable acts of domestic violence. I can only interpret this choice as NMA’s reminder that this story applies to us today, and may be why they’ve added the subtitle “Reclaiming Destiny.”
There’s little question that Father God is boss here, with his sidekick Mother God to keep him company. Son of God is a force for peace and reconciliation. Milton, and NMA, leave little doubt that we’d be well advised to follow their paths of goodness, but Satan and his minions get their due as well, for they, like Milton, do have an anti-authoritarian streak and their own family and hierarchy.
Costuming (called “wardrobe design”) by Ashphord Jacoway brings out an underlying ethos of comic book action figures. Mortal combat scenes between cosmic forces of good and evil evoke a grunting, groaning soundscape of POW! WHAM! BAM! They should bring this entertainment to the Las Vegas masses for a little cultural erudition.
In a published interview, Jones (Welsh) Talmadge refers to “the first human choices that have led us to our current social and political climate…
“Our everyday choices can lead us closer to building a Heaven on Earth, if we are conscious and intentional, because it can be so easy to choose building a Hell, simply by how you treat your family when you get up in the morning, how you greet a stranger on the street, how you honor yourself. It’s up to us, and I want every audience member to walk away committed to creating Eden again.”
Ballet is often called “poetry in motion,” and in this case it is literally true. It helps to have some idea of the Milton epic, but just the visual and sonic experience alone is unlike anything you’d see in a small theatre. Sitting close up to these masterfully sculpted bodies at peak fitness in constant movement felt like a rare privilege. I could easily see Cirque de Soleil adapting this to a larger format with greater resources, but it might be too sophisticated (and possibly too religious) for their audience.
Unfortunately, further credits are much deserved but far too numerous to include. It’s a tight ensemble production whose every movement is precisely cued. That takes a huge amount of split-second coordination.
Paradise Lost: Reclaiming Destiny plays at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles 90036, through April 2, Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm, and Sun. at 7 pm. There is free parking in the lot adjacent to the theatre. For tickets and further information call (323) 673-0544, or visit NotManApart.com.