Covid Mysteries: An interesting comeback for the performing arts
I think I can safely say that watching “Covid Mysteries” was one of the stranger experiences of my life. I have seen (and reviewed) a lot of theater, both from student groups and the Performing Arts Department, over my three years at Washington University. I have never seen anything like “Covid Mysteries.”
Let’s set the scene: “Covid Mysteries” was the first live theater I, or anyone at Wash. U., has seen in over a year—for me, it’s been since “Men on Boats” in Feb. 2020. It was outside, with the audience sitting six feet away from each other on a roped-off section of Mudd Field. It was a beautiful day, just on the hot side of comfortable, and I sat down on the grass to watch. Around me, dozens of others did the same. During the pre-show music, I sat among my peers in the sun and reflected that I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed this.
But things did not remain idyllic. “Covid Mysteries” was a reinvention of the 14th-century York Cycle Mystery Plays, which cover the creation of the world through the second coming of Jesus. “Covid Mysteries” didn’t go quite that far—it stopped just before the crucifixion—but it also somehow managed to be set in the present. The Virgin Mary worked at a hospital, the archangels were on a basketball team and God was inspired to become human, thus creating Jesus, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you read that and thought, “What the f—?!” you would come close to my state of mind while watching this work of theater. There is absolutely no way “Covid Mysteries” can be concisely summed up, so let me present you with a variety of scenes.
God (Ph.D. student Stephen Reaugh), wearing a white bathrobe, narrates to the audience, complaining of his loneliness and isolation. The archangels—Mike (sophomore Isabel Koleno), Gabe (junior Jake Steinberg), Rafe (Dylan McKenna), Uri (senior Naomi Blair) and Lucifer (freshman Inara Khan)—dance with God to “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire while the Earth is created. Or, while a green carpet and a blue tarp are brought around from behind the pageant wagon, anyway. The angels, minus Lucifer, hold up Beanie Babies to convince God to spare the animals before the Flood (Noah and his wife are sock puppets, by the way). Mary (Blair) is on break from her shift at the hospital, where she is caring for dying COVID patients, when Mike tells her she will be the mother to God.
Take what you will from that.
Every scene was ridiculous, and purposefully so. The York Cycle Mysteries are, to the modern reader, painfully boring. They were meant to inspire increased devotion through the representation of religious scenes, especially with what’s called affective piety: connecting to the divine by relating to Jesus’s humanity. That’s not what a modern-day audience is going to do. We, as a society, just aren’t that wholly devoted to (Catholic) Christianity anymore. There are, also, a lot more non-Christian people in the audience of “Covid Mysteries” than there would have been in 1300s England (Jewish people were expelled from England in 1290, along with adherents of other minority religions).
The constant, over-the-top humor, though, didn’t lend itself to the play’s moments of emotional sincerity. At times, the two felt separate—as though the commentary on isolation and loss didn’t quite mesh with the general hilarity of the show. It’s hard to take them seriously, but we have to. We can’t joke about COVID and the death toll it has caused, and “Covid Mysteries” realized that. It also sought to provide much-needed levity during—and I hate even typing this—these trying times. It just wasn’t quite able to do both.
That’s not to say “Covid Mysteries” wasn’t fun—it was. But it was so strange that I spent a long time after leaving Mudd Field trying to figure out what, exactly, I had just watched. I’m still not entirely sure.