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John Milton's Paradise Lost: puppets, projections and rock n' roll

by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

To the insistent beat of classic Rolling Stones, a cherubic but sexy angel descends from heaven and is dramatically cast into hell. Amidst the flames he transforms into a rock star, bargains with the seductive sprite Sin, and ascends to unleash original sin upon Eden. He manipulates, literally as they are puppets, Adam and Eve by transforming into a sinuous snake. The apple is eaten, paradise is lost, and Mick Jagger is pleased to meet you.

Paul Van Dyck's John Milton's Paradise Lost is a biblical lesson upended and eroticized. Visually it is stunning with simplicity blossoming into beautiful vistas. Van Dyck himself is a beauty, and he fades in and out of centre stage as the characters ease in and out of the spotlight. The difficult text, 17th century blank verse, flows easily and while Van Dyck doesn't quite make it comprehensible, he does make it hypnotic. Combined with the visuals, the epic poem acquires an emotional power.

Van Dyck sticks literally to the text with only minimal visual commentary or critique. This is the only place that Paradise Lost falters: blaming Eve for succumbing to a petulant prank created by an insecure god doesn't sit as well in 2015 as it might have in 1667. The rock n' roll framing and sexuality do offer some deconstruction, but the beauty of the words can't negate the slight sour taste of religious fervour.

The puppets, created by Lyne Paquette, are extraordinary. Van Dyck brings them to life and imbues them with character and depth. It is tragic when they are forced to leave Eden merely for snacking and taking advantage of their anatomical correctness. Several sleight of hand moments lend reality to the fantastical tale, with the entire production moving smoothly with understated spectacle. 

The set design (Jody Burkholder) and CGI (Jeremy Eliosoff) are striking and turn into complementary tools for Van Dyck to use in spinning his tale. It is almost seamless and definitely magical. Also of note is the uncredited music editor who rearranges The Stones into tantalizing counterpoint. Van Dyck is an engaging performer and whether devil, angel, or manipulative God, he is fascinating to watch. So engaging that, if Paradise Lost were to be performed in a church or Sunday school rather than left-wing hotbed Theatre Passe Muraille, I would fear for conversion. 

Paradise Lost was a rapturous hour spent in the company of theatrical magic and if one concentrates on the rock n' roll, puppets and sexiness, the religious guilt and Milton's misogyny melt away. To bastardize Milton himself,

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven. 

John Milton's Paradise Lost continues until Sun, Dec 6 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Ave. passemuraille.ca

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