“Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.”
It’s a famous line from Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost and it’s one of those age-old questions — are we just puppets for some higher power, or do we have free will?
Paul Van Dyck complicates the matter by making Adam and Eve literal, papier-maché puppets in his sold-out one-man production of the poem on March 3-4.
“It’s an interesting theological question,” he says in a Q&A session after the show. “I mean, the puppets have a certain stubbornness to them — I can’t make them do certain things because of how they’re made. But they’re also inanimate objects until I get my hands on them.”
The show, which took place at the packed-to-capacity venue of the Arts Project on Friday, is a fast-paced, entertaining and visually fascinating rendition of work that many students and teachers know like the back of their hand. To reimagine such a canonical work is ambitious, but the project paid off.
Van Dyck adapted the whopping 12-book monster of a poem into an hour-long production, but he is also the sole performer. Thankfully, he holds his own — he has a natural stage presence and a taste for dramatic flair. He makes a wonderfully enticing Satan, bellowing out his rousing call to arms to his fallen brethren while cradling a microphone like a rock star. He plays Sin with just the right amount of high-pitched creepy and the archangel Michael with a sense of righteous fury.
Perhaps one of the most memorable moments is his seduction of Eve. Van Dyck dons an eerie mask on his arm and slithers around her, exuding charm and danger in equal part as he convinces her to eat the forbidden fruit. Van Dyck’s ability to play different characters in the same scene is an unusual and incredible talent; you really start to believe that he’s a few different people.
The play is minimalistic. There are a few well-planned props and the audiovisual and digital elements add a lot in terms of understanding and atmosphere, but they’re not overdone. Mainly, Van Dyck uses simple white sheets hanging around the stage as wings when needed (angels, both fallen and heavenly) and to great effect. They are also used as a projector for computer animations (Jeremy Eliosoff). Sin is an eerie, wavering projection on the sheets; scenes of 20th-century warfare flash onto them when the archangel Michael grants Adam his visions of the future.
Van Dyck is also extremely dextrous and expressive with the puppets. He manages to convey inner conflict, fear, happiness, anger and even eroticism through simple movements: a hint of comedy as Eve leaves Adam for the first time, the way Adam pulls away from a pleading, corrupted Eve, their trepidation and then ecstasy at eating the forbidden fruit.
A one-man show, adapted from a 12-book epic, might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s certainly an unusual medium and the production isn’t a blockbuster thriller all the way through; it’s engaging, but it’s as cerebral as the source material at time. But Van Dyck took an idea that sounds risky on paper —running the risk of offending die-hard academics and losing the younger crowd — and delivered a resounding success.