There are various ways one can perform theatre in a pandemic. Blessed Unrest was able to perform an outdoor production of Battle of Angels with recorded sound making up for the fact that performers were masked. Other companies have held readings in Zoom. This can be depressing sometimes, but occasionally you come across a real gem, like Gingold Theatrical Group's reading of Arms and the Man.
Folks at the University of South Dakota have found another solution. I just watched their production of Angels and Demons, a show bringing together several pageants from the York and Wakefield cycles of medieval mystery plays. The show was performed live, but made available streaming through the theatre department's website. Though the actors didn't have masks, they did all wear face shields to protect them from one another, and audience members like me watched safely from our homes.
Is it the same as live theatre? Decidedly, the answer is no, but it did give me the chance to see some great medieval drama adapted from the Middle English original by the show's director, Casey Paradies. Unfortunately, we didn't get much of a sense of the poetry of the original, but the adaptation was able to give us a taste of some of the less well known plays from the cycles. We missed the much lauded Second Shepherd's Play, but got to see The Fall of the Angels, The Temptation, and The Harrowing of Hell, among other scenes.
At the beginning of the play, we see God (Chloe Sand) create the world. After she leaves her throne vacant, though, Lucifer (Tyler Peters) declares that he should be master now. In the original play from the York cycle, Lucifer declares:
To ressayve my reverence thorowe righte o renowne.
I sall be lyke unto hym that es hyeste on heghte —
Owe, what I am derworth and defte.
Owe, Dewes, all goes downe!
My mighte and my mayne es all marrande.
Helpe, felawes, in faythe I am fallande.
Notice how as soon as Lucifer places himself on the highest height, his pride sends him crashing down to Hell. Paradies' production shows Lucifer and his fellow angels then transformed into demons, with hideous horns and makeup.
With angelkind a disappointment, God decides to create Adam and Eve (Cody Jones and Abby Schwedhelm). In this production, Lucifer emerges from a prison at the side of the set, which seems reminiscent of the Hell Mouths of the medieval stage. Envious of humanity, the arch-fiend appears to Eve with a snake puppet, promising her that if she eats of the forbidden fruit, she will gain wisdom and become like God. She takes the fruit and... well... you should never listen to talking snakes.
After about 4,000 years, though, God comes up with a plan to create righteousness and bring forth a Son named Jesus (Camille Cook). Lucifer finds Jesus, who has wandered out into the wilderness alone, and attempts to tempt Him, but the Son is adamant. Lucifer departs in frustration, and two angels come to comfort Jesus. This is when He declares that His time is at hand. In the original York play, He says:
My blissing have thei with my hande
That with swilke greffe is noght grucchand,
And also that will stiffely stande
Agaynste the fende.
I knawe my tyme is faste command;
Now will I wende.
It's time for the Passion and Crucifixion. The scourging is performed as a dumb show in Paradies' version. Jesus then mounts a scaffold up to the Tree of Life, which we saw in the Adam and Eve sequence, but which lighting designer Dani Roth cleverly transforms into a cross. Jesus has been defeated by death. Or has he...?
The Harrowing of Hell is usually fascinating to modern audiences, in part because it is an event that does not appear in the Bible, other than a brief reference in the Apostle's Creed. Adam and Eve, trapped in Hell, see a great light, which indicates the coming of Christ. This event was prophesied by Isaiah, as well as by John the Baptist and Moses, all three of whom are still in Hell because the Son has yet to redeem humanity.
Once Jesus enters Hell, it's time for the big fight scene with Lucifer. This is conducted both with words and staves in the USD production. Though Lucifer is defeated, he looks forward to still being able to damn evil souls in the future. He can't enjoy his lordship over Hell, though, as Jesus binds him and sends him to sink into the pit.
We missed The Resurrection and fast forwarded to The Last Judgment, where the online audience got to hear a chant of "Build That Wall!" Are we living in the Endtimes? Perhaps. The good are taken up to heaven, but the demons Beelzebub (Thomas Honeywell) and Ribald (Emmy Hewitt) exult in all the wicked they will be able to now torment eternally, both in body and in soul.
Jesus then addresses the blessed, reminding them that when He was hungry, they gave Him food, and when thirsty, they gave Him drink. This they did whenever they provided anything for the poor and downtrodden. The damned, however, are reminded of how they never had pity on the unfortunate. When Jesus turns to humanity and reprimands them for their failure to act, it's a moving moment. Here's what it says in the original York play:
In all my woo toke I no wrake,
Mi will itt was for the love of thee.
Man, sore aught thee for to quake,
This dredfull day, this sight to see.
All this I suffered for thi sake.
Say, man, what suffered thou for me?
As we approach an election that seems like as great a reckoning as any our nation has seen, the words of Jesus ring with the force of a powerful accusation. What have we done for the least in our society? And if we have ignored the Face of God in them, what hope can we have for our own salvation?
If you're interested in watching the USD production, it will be livestreamed on Saturday October 24th at 7:30 p.m. Central Time and Sunday, October 25th at 2 p.m. Central. You can watch it here.