THE PRODUCTION of Back to Methuselah at the Loeb Ex tonight is quiet, lulling and wonderful. Its strength derives from an evenness of tone, a beautiful monotony that strokes music out of the language. Listening through its hour is like drawing out an ancient scroll covered with wondrous inscriptions--there's order to it, some rising and falling, but the shape and texture of the paper never change: it transfixes.
Bernard Shaw's proverbial preface to the original says the play (or this section of it) is about Darwinism and the expectations of man in history. Yet the drama itself doesn't compress this: it's downright expansive--not an easy effect when your setting is the Garden of Eden and you want to speak simply but not so simply that everything seems symbolic. Director Rob Hershman works with the expansiveness, and when he gets such fine performances out of Richard Bangs and Adam and Catherine Dean as Eve, what emerges is something that shovels ideas less than it rolls out words in a glorious ramble.
The first act is tricky because it's slow--the serpent teaching Adam and Eve the meaning of death, hope and conception with little action and a lot of talk. Again--when you have Paradise as the scene the danger lies in seeming ponderous. Here the solution--as in, say, "The Blue Angel"--is sensuality: it takes care of fluidity, momentum and vividness in a fell swoop if it's used right. Hershman does, by making his serpent a double image, played by two women, Gypsy Knocks and Victoria Kins. They never stop moving, swaying and undulating in a coiling mass that envelopes a fascinated Eve in the sexuality of knowledge and mortality.
The serpents are gilded with Theda Bara eye makeup and cheap-glam feather boas, but their style is belly dance rather than hippity-hop Charleston. The set, too, is twenties and thirties: the glitter of aluminum foil stars and moons is like the old movie palaces with their ugly statues, fancy organs, and ceilings domed in twinkling lights to look like the midnight sky. The effect is hokey but not distracting--it's just instant dreamland.
What is really exceptional here, though, is the acting. Adam is cold, Aryan and deliberate, a Max von Sydow who is best when working with his hands, saying quietly, "Life is still long enough to learn how to dig." He bore suffering and experience well, which sets the mood of the second act. But the suffering of Eve is even more important.
I don't know what Catherine Dean's acting experience is like, and no one thought she was very special in Dracula this fall. But her Eve is the best performance I've seen at Harvard. The first act turns into the second with an omniscient voice intoning a "begat" section of the Bible, while shadows file on and off the stage leaving it a clutter of history. Eve is there knitting, lines of childbirth drawn onto her face, placid as her husband digs in the dirt beside her. A brash and warlike Cain returns, brandishing a spear, and in the mother son exchange that follows Dean throws so much of herself into the part, quivers with so much wise fire, that the most devastating line in the play by contrast is spoken simply and softly, unacted: "All you men, except only Adam, are my sons, or my sons's sons, or my sons's sons's sons..."
Listening to Bans's Adam is like hearing music because he varies accents on syllables--sometimes you miss what he's saying because the cadence is so interesting. It's nitpicking to say that this style was gimmicky compared to Eve's, which didn't have to vary the stress. There was an instinctive feeling for dynamics and speed variation that didn't need to tamper with the natural rhythm of the language.
Back To Methusaleh isn't earthshakingly dramatic. There's no comedy (it is positively blasphemic when some people illogically laugh) or clashing about. What there is a very short play which seems like a very long play, and in the good sense.
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Harvard Today: Oct. 30, 2013