Review: American Premiere of Clive Barker’s ‘Paradise Street’ at The Exit Theater (****)

by Charles Kruger

Queen Elizabeth (Christina Augello) is a time travelling "goddess in the machine" who startles the denizens of Liverpool's Paradise Street one peculiar Christmas Eve in Clive Barker's masque-like play.
Queen Elizabeth (Christina Augello) is a time traveling “goddess in the machine” who startles the denizens of Liverpool’s Paradise Street one peculiar Christmas Eve in Clive Barker’s masque-like play. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

You probably know Clive Barker as a writer of horror novels (he has been called the British Stephen King) but did you know he is also a playwright, and a damn good one? Director Stuart Bousel brings us the American premiere of Paradise Street, which dates from the 1980s decade of Thatcher, but seems highly pertinent now. It is riotously erudite, funny and insightful, political and raunchy, and features a visit to gritty Liverpool by the time-traveling Queen Elizabeth I accompanied by a 16th century entourage including an unexpectedly goofy Earl of Essex, and a pet ape.

Mad Irish Liverpudlian street prophet and erstwhile mathematics professor Mulrooney (a marvelously cast Phil Wong whose ethnicity-bending performance is sheer delight) has spent his life in the pursuit of the miraculous, inspired by Charles Fort’s peculiar classic The Book of the Damned. He has never successfully encountered a miracle, but on this Christmas Eve his hopes are high.

When he encounters two performing street players, he does not recognize that his miracle has arrived: the players are part of a time traveling troupe headed by Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson, who has prepared a masque for the soon-to-be-arriving Queen Elizabeth, no less. As the Virgin Queen, Christina Aguello has enormous fun sending up every “masterpiece theatre” depiction of Good Queen Bess you can imagine from Judy Dench to Bette Davis to Flora Robson, and with a great deal more raunch.

Also out and about on this peculiarly Shakespearean night of mysterious revelry is the drunken Bonner (David Bohnet), a confused British soldier hoping to hook up with his ex-girlfriend, who, though still addled by love, is none too enthusiastic over the prospect.

Meanwhile, the Earl of Essex (played by a very young and very talented Luke Brady, from whom we will no doubt be hearing a great deal) is anxious to make his own way with the Virgin Queen, but is hampered by an escaped pet ape.

Complications ensue. Shakespeare lovers will greatly enjoy Barker’s delicious variations on Shakespearean themes of love and death and mortality, as well as some bard-inspired plot twists such as the imprisoning of our drunken hero in a sack (reference poor Falstaff in “The Merry Wives of Windsor”).

Barker’s Liverpool is a mad world, falling apart, and desperately needing a miracle. It is certainly not all fun and games: there is a vicious beating, suggestions of racism, poverty, unjust wars, government abuse, depression, and a whole Pandora’s box of distressing demons. None of this is spelled out with great coherence, and that is as it should be: this is a Masque, a hodge-podge of politics, poetry, spectacle, and  more than a dollop of nonsense, but behind all the disarray is some serious messaging.

What is the message? That is carried by Elizabeth, who arrives on the scene with a surprising agenda by which she will retrieve important information that will permit her to return to her own time and perhaps change the entire course of English history (especially the dismal 1980s) for the better. No spoiler here, though—the important discovery she makes you will only find by attending the show (which you probably should do).

In the end, the appealing Mulrooney gets his miracle and it is a lollapalooza, surpassing the most peculiar phenomena detailed in Fortean Times Magazine and, one might even hope, all’s well that ends well.

Before closing this review, I should mention that the necessary fight choreography, handled by Kyle McReddie, is conspicuously good, surpassing in large measure the work seen in most Shakespearean productions in Northern California. All the other elements are better than fine, as well: set, lights, costumes, and original music by Clayton J. Horath.

In summary: this is one heavenly entertainment. It might not be your typical Christmas fare—it’s Clive Barker after all—and it won’t make you think of Dickens or Tiny Tim, but it might just leave you feeling awed and hopeful, and that’s pretty much the Spirit of the Season, isn’t it?

“Paradise Street” continues at The Exit Theatre through December 17th. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here)
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