The Devil Made Them Do It: God and Satan Square off on Scientific Grounds in Dell'Arte's 21st-Century Paradise Lost. (theater review)
Butler, Wendy, American Theatre
ONE MARK OF GREAT POETRY IS ITS ability to transcend the time in which it was written. That goes double for English poet John Milton's Paradise Lost, as reen-visioned by the Dell'Arte Company of Blue Lake, Calif. In their ambitious new stage adaptation of the 17th-century God-versus-Satan epic, retitled Paradise Lost: The Clone of God, the physical-theatre specialists of Dell'Arte have pulled Milton's vastly influential, 10,549-line poem out of time, added contemporary science and technology to it and come up with a 21st-century dilemma: Why are we in the dirt staring up at heaven? Is it because of our genes or because of the Almighty?
In this production, the poet's words, not a little affected by his meetings with the Italian scientist and inventor Galileo Galilei, butt up against our own century's latest developments in scientific inquiry--particularly the Human Genome Project. The philosophical resonance of mapping genetic structures (particularly its implications about biological determinism) redirect Milton's cosmic tale, first published in 1667, into up-to-the-moment musings about human behavior--and, by chance or by design, plunge it headlong into reverberations of 9/11.
Development over the course of two years by the Dell' Arte Company in collaboration with Italian-born, Oakland-based scenic designer, director and writer Giulio Cesare Perrone, Paradise Lost: The Clone of God debuted in Blue Lake and toured last summer to Hungary and Croatia. The play takes the shape of there full-evening fragments, the first of which I saw in Dell'Arte's indoor Carlo Theatre in February 2001. It opens with Vivalidi's L'Estro Armonico, whose strains are shoved suddenly aside by the hip-hop rhythms of sound designer Timothy Gray. Rap lyrics--the first of a deluge of inventive anachronisms--toy with the Infamous One: "Satan, this is not your mother calling, come on."
This play's spoken lines are mostly drawn from Milton's poem and recited by the show's lead actors: Dell' Arte managing artistic director Michael Fields, in the physically punishing role of Satan, and Dell'Arte training-school alumnus Dana Wieluns as both his offspring, Sin, and his fellow warrior, Beelzebub, But amid the poet's grandly cadenced rhetoric, spoken and visua references to computers, genetic imprints and viral proliferation unhinge and actors and the tale they tell (not to mention the audience) from their Miltonic moorings.
The Human Genome Project is no small player in this annotated Paradise Lost. Satan is power-hungry and obsessed by the four DNA chemical bases (adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine, or ATCG), which prompts a riveting scene in which Fields's Satan, hair waxed, undershirt drenched with sweat, seemingly connected intravenously to his computer, lurches toward the audience chanting and spitting "ATCG...ATCG!" His body shakes as though he were being electrocuted, and the trauma thrusts him into Satan's great speech of resignation: "Here we may reign secure, and in my choice/To reign is worth ambition, though in hell:/Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven."
The effect is not unlike a 1950s drive-in movie written by Jean-Paul Sartre--science fiction meets existentialism.
The Clone of God frequently escalates into a sound-and-movement cacophony. Thirty-six supporting players from the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, dressed in white and lugging suitcases (life's baggage, perhaps), march around the set through a trough of water, weaving past Satan and Sin, their laughter often overlapping the text. They then collapse: Evolution is exhausting.
The second fragment, subtitled Sacred Land, which I saw in July 2001, is an outdoor installation in the Redwood Park forest in the town of Arcata, near Blue Lake. Elaborating on the tension already established between divine law and the muck of earthly creation, the segment introduces Galileo himself; three Adams and Eves, each living in different historical periods (biblical times, the 17th century and modern day); and a fourth couple, Leaf Man and Leaf Woman, who represent genealogy coursing through vegetation. …