Monday, December 7, 2015

114. Review: C.S. LEWIS THE GREAT DIVORCE (seen December 6, 2015)

“The Chronicles of Yawnia”
Stars range from 5-1
For some reason several recent writers have found rich pickings for the stage in THE GREAT DIVORCE, a Christian-themed,  fantasy novella published in 1945 by prolific, British (but Irish-born) writer C.S. Lewis (THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA). Max McLean and Brian Watkins’s adaptation of the book—whose influences include, among others, Lewis Carroll, Dante Alighieri, and John Bunyan—now being performed by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts at the Pearl Theatre, is at least the third adaptation in the past half-decade. While the FPA’s production, directed by Bill Castellino, is well-acted and prettily produced, the material’s too rarified for general consumption; it appears to be geared mainly for an audience of the faithful (Lewis was a convert to the Church of England) preoccupied by thoughts of Heaven and Hell. While it seeks to present its theological viewpoints in a friendly, even occasionally humorous, parable-like way, it comes off like a preachy Sunday school drama; if you’re not pious enough to give it your undivided attention, you may find yourself drifting into fantasies of your own.
Michael Frederic, Christa Scott-Reed, Joel Rainwater. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The producers, obviously aware of the problem, offer not only a brief explanatory program note but a substantial synopsis of the plot. As they explain it, the work’s essential question is, if you were living in the Hell Lewis imagines and given the choice between remaining there or entering Lewis’s vision of Heaven, which would you choose? Of course, you have to appreciate the original ways in which Heaven and Hell are described before you can decide.
Michael Frederic, Joel Rainwater. Photo: Joan Marcus.
THE GREAT DIVORCE, whose title refers to its origins as a rejoinder to William Blake’s THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL (1790-1793), begins in a library where the Narrator (Joel Rainwater), a gentle, academic type who’s a stand-in for Lewis, falls asleep while reading. When he awakes he’s standing in the twilight rain in the grim Grey Town (representing Hell), waiting for a celestial bus with several querulous townsfolk. Once aboard the bus, he meets various passengers, each of whom is traveling to Heaven’s foothills for different reasons. We learn of conditions in the dismal Grey Town, where the usual amusements are available, but where people keep moving from place to place to get away from their neighbors, creating both sprawl and empty streets.
Michael Frederic, Christa Scott-Reed, Joel Rainwater. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Once in the gorgeous world of Heaven, the passengers discover that they’re merely ghostly shadows; if they remain and accept what Heaven has to offer, they’ll gradually become solid. For now, though, merely stepping on the solid grass is painful (everybody, by the way, is barefoot throughout), and it requires great strength simply to lift an apple. There follow encounters between the townspeople and heavenly Spirits—dressed in long, white robes—with whom they once had relationships, and who seek to get them to abandon their selfish desires in order to follow them and find heavenly joy. The Ghosts, though, are deceived by their attachments to pride, jealousy, greed, possessiveness, skepticism, and the like and refuse to stay. Late in the play, a Ghost (played by the Narrator) struggles with a red lizard, which represents the lust he’s unwilling to abandon, although the play never clarifies this connection.
Joel Rainwater, Christa Scott-Reed. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The Narrator himself is met by the Scottish writer George MacDonald (1824-1905), who had a profound influence in Lewis’s decision to abandon atheism and turn to God; he rolls his “r’s,” wears a red, plaid sash across his white robe, and serves as the Narrator’s Virgil, instructing him on this New World and the people they encounter as he guides him toward spiritual enlightenment. At the end, the Narrator is back in the library, where he wakes up, faced with deciding how he'll henceforth conduct his life.

The many characters, apart from the Narrator, are embodied by two versatile, middle-aged actors, the tall and slim Christa Scott-Reed and the distinguished-looking Michael Frederic, who don Nicole Wee’s attractive costumes to shift quickly from role to role. Jeffery Cady’s brilliant, cutting-edge projections, many of them combining still with moving images, create the otherworldly locales in which the action transpires; they are, in fact, the most compelling part of the production. The only scenic props on set designer Kelly James Tighe’s functional set, which is mainly a circular platform covered with Astroturf in front of a projection screen, are short, silver-painted boxes made to look like bunches of books welded together. John Gromoda’s superb original music and sound design does wonders to enhance the strange atmosphere.  

Regardless of what theological implications the play provides, or the degree to which you’re interested in hearing arguments, some fairly dense, favoring Heaven over Hell, or vice versa, you may discover that THE GREAT DIVORCE simply lacks enough tension to hold your focus for its 90-intermissionless minutes. The characters, intended to illustrate particular human characteristics, are too unreal, and seeing them all portrayed by the same actors, with heavenly Spirits in white robes, only serves to heighten the churchy didacticism. Introducing a real historical person as a Spirit in the person of MacDonald might appeal to those familiar with his ideas, but for the benighted rest of us his presence has no particular resonance. THE GREAT DIVORCE can certainly be considered theatrical, but it’s a far cry from being dramatic.


Pearl Theatre
555 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through January 3