Paradise Lost is an all-star team of Tony nominees, Broadway veterans and award -winning designers who unite for a witty and engaging modern retelling of John Milton’s classic story of humanity’s fall from grace.
The play is part of the Fellowship for Performing Arts and runs through March 1st 2020.
Q: Thank you for sitting with us, both.
Tom Dulack, let’s start with you. Tell us about the inspiration behind the play and what led you to write “Paradise Lost’.
Tom: To set the record straight, it was never my plan to “adapt” Milton’s Paradise Lost. A lot of the feedback I receive has to do with a general conviction that I have somehow succeeded in compressing this gigantic masterpiece of world literature into less than two hours of stage time. Milton’s poem, of course, consists of 12 very long and sometimes tedious books of more often than not simply impenetrable verse. Nobody could reduce the whole thing to 100 minutes of a stage play, and only a mad person would try. What I did was write an original play about Eve from the perspective of a contemporary female sensibility. And in so doing, I freely lifted a number of ideas from the very few places in Milton’s poem that lend themselves to a work for theatre.
Q: What should an audience know about the context of Milton’s work that would enhance their understanding and enjoyment of your play?
Tom. Whatever else it is, Milton’s poem is not dramatic. It may actually be anti-dramatic, a not so startling proposition when you keep in mind that Milton belonged to a generation of Englishmen who grew up and, in some cases, spent their entire adult lives without ever seeing a stage play. By the time the civil war that ended with Charles I being defeated, deposed and executed, the theatres had been closed for more than twenty years by government order under pressure from the rising power of the Puritan movement.
Plays, moreover, had become not merely illegal, they had come to represent everything the Puritans loathed in traditional Christianity, whether it was high church Anglicanism or unvarnished Roman Catholicism. It is no coincidence that when Charles II was restored to the English throne on the death of Oliver Cromwell, after having grown up in France protected by Louis XIV, himself a great lover of plays, the new king’s Frenchified enthusiasm for the theatre confirmed the view in the old hard-core Puritans that plays were inherently Popish, the work of the devil. So, when we think of Paradise Lost, we must remind ourselves that Milton was a Puritan rather than what we might think of as a mainstream Christian apologist. This being the case, a playwright who chooses to work with Puritan material of the period will always have in the back of his or her mind Shakespeare’s concise summary of Puritanism in the mouth of Sir Toby Belch who sneers drunkenly at the Puritan Malvolio, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
Q: Why or how does this play make sense to a modern audience?
Michael Parva: Well I certainly believe that the narrative of the play is fundamentally timeless. Additionally, Tom has done a remarkable job fleshing out and crafting characters that are completely relatable to a contemporary audience. All the internal and external issues that motivate and drive these characters through this story transcend time and place and are issues still confronting all of humanity today as they have since the beginning, as we know it. Certainly, the larger notions of the play including recognizing good vs evil and the concept of free will, understanding what doing the right thing means, remain ongoing challenges for all of humanity, perhaps even more so today than ever before.
By the way, in my opinion Tom has accomplished a herculean feat – successfully taking on this massive unwieldy epic narrative, and creating an engaging and compelling six-character play.
Q: Tom, what were some of the literary challenges involved in turning this material into a stage play?
Tom: Well, as I said earlier, there is almost no purely speaking theatrical drama in Milton’s poem. In addition, aside from not being at all dramatic, Adam and Eve in Milton are not even very interesting. I decided the secret to writing a successful play based on this ancient story would be to present an Eve with a developed personality and an insatiable curiosity who resisted sometimes consciously, and sometimes subconsciously, obeying arbitrary commandments. The challenge was to make her bright, and appealing to that modern theatre-going audience Michael was just talking about; to make her amusing if possible; and to in the end make us sympathize with her sorrow and regret once she realizes what she has wrought.
Q: How did you accomplish all that?
Tom: Genesis does not tell us why she disobeyed. Neither does Milton. So, I had to come up with a satisfying explanation why such a bright and appealing young woman would ignore all the warnings and eat the apple. There was no thought, by the way, of a Paradise Lost in which Eve does not eat the apple. I also needed to supply a dimension of suspense that is completely absent in the poem So I set about to create a reluctance in Lucifer to ruin Eve. “I could love you,”
Lucifer muses as he contemplates the sleeping Eve. (This direct from Milton.) And then I decided to create an Eve with an insatiable curiosity and a kind of expansive and confident generosity of vision that horrifies the more cautious and conventional Adam. She wonders if God might not ultimately forgive Lucifer for his crime in Heaven. She is persuaded that the spirit who visited her in her dream had nothing in common with the monster Gabriel describes. Gabriel and Adam warn her and reproach her, but her experience does not support their descriptions. She knows they are mistaken, she knows she is right.
Michael: That’s exactly right. Finding the right approach to Eve’s character was perhaps the most challenging aspect for this story to have credibility and relevance. Much time was spent trying to get that right. A key was how Tom includes and underlines the straight forward notion that Eve is newly arrived on the scene, as opposed to Adam who has been around for a much longer period before her, and how eager she is to learn, catch up and absorb all that she can so they both will be on equal footing.
Another challenge in the direction, given most people assume they know the general story and the outcome, was to position it in my mind for the actors that the outcome is still “in play” and might turn out differently – to keep the stakes high. And that this is not so much a “who done it, but a “why done it?”
Tom: Yes, we felt that the misogyny which is so rife both in Genesis and in Milton was a serious sticking point as far as making the material accessible to a modern audience.
Adam insisting that “I am your law.” No modern educated woman was going to sit still for stuff like that.
Q: So how did you finally resolve that thorny sexist issue?
Tom: It was tough. I didn’t know what to do about this for a long time until one day digging around in my dog-eared copy of the poem dating back to my undergraduate days I came upon the answer that Michael mentioned, that Adam had been living alone in the Garden long before Eve was created. Milton gives Adam a charming account of being lonely and asking the Almighty to send him company. Not only did it provide a charming scene in itself, it allowed me to have Adam address the issue of what appears to be his unfair advantage and authority over Eve
Michael Jumping in: Right, that was the key. As I said, Adam explains that if he seems to know more than she, it is only because he has been there much longer than she. And he assures her he won’t rest until he has taught her everything he knows so that they will then be perfect equals.
Tom: The audience invariably laughs at this moment in the play, recognizing both the problem of sexism and the solution to it as far as the legend and the play are concerned.
Q: Michael, what were some of your most serious challenges as Director of this play? And how did you overcome them?
Michael: One that jumps out first in my mind was, given that most people assume they know the general story as well as the outcome, was how to position the story, mostly for the actors and the audience, that supports the possibility that the outcome is still “in play” and actually might turn out differently – to keep the stakes high. I also alerted the team to the many “firsts” that are occurring in the play. I also encouraged in the direction that this is not so much a “who done it, but a “why done it?”
The first challenge production-wise is right at the start of the play which begins in Hell and must transform, in an instant, into the lush Garden of Eden. I wanted that change to be highly dramatic and visually impactful, without moving one piece of scenery. For me, that primary notion dictated how the rest of the design should and must function for the rest of the play. With that, I also wanted to integrate and layer in projections to seamlessly support the important narrative elements of the play.
Also, in an effort to further support the timelessness of the play, where past, present and future all exist, carefully chosen props and costumes were specially designed from various periods, such as a 1930’s microphone that Lucifer uses to speak to his fallen angels with. And then there are WINGS! Big ones, broken ones, etc.….that needed to be designed so actors will be able to wear them. All exciting challenges that make the production exciting to see.
Q: Could you talk a little about the role of comedy in Paradise Lost and perhaps the interface of morality and comedy?
Tom: Oh boy! The interface of morality and comedy. That’s way over my head. I don’t know that I can say anything really coherent about the role of comedy. I guess the role of comedy in anything is to make people laugh. I have always been able to write comedy and make people laugh and when for whatever reason an audience watching Paradise Lost fails to laugh when there is a moment of obvious comedy unfolding in front of them, it makes me very unhappy and insecure and ultimately angry. Michael’s your guy for that subject, I think.
Michael: The play walks a fine line when it comes to the “comedy” that’s threaded throughout. The moments of humor paradoxically (given the underbelly of gravitas of the play) work best when it springs from a moments of recognizable truth from the characters because it’s smart, funny, self-aware, and ironic. Smart humor is always helpful as it allows the audience to take it in, smile, perhaps even laugh at some of the more serious notions the characters are really struggling with. Case in point – Tom opens the play with Beelzebub, having just smack landed in Hell with Lucifer , turn to say “You said this would be easy”
Tom: The laugh at that moment, at the very beginning of the play, informs the audience that this is going to be a very different kind of treatment of this old story.
Q: That opening is sensational. It looks like something you would find on Broadway. Just spectacular.
Tom: Yeah, it makes everybody jump. First time I saw it in rehearsal, I couldn’t believe what Michael had wrought. We first collaborated in 2015 on my play The Road to Damascus that was successfully produced off Broadway at a playhouse specializing in producing chancy material. In Damascus Michael managed a very beautiful production that took place in a NY hotel room, at the State Department in Washington DC, in the Vatican, and on an airplane. And he managed all this on a shoestring budget. So, for Paradise Lost I was confident he would come up with something equally striking. But I had no idea just how spectacular the production he was working on would actually turn out to be. I have to confess, initially I wondered if the production values weren’t too grand. I worried that the play might not be able to stand up to them. I’m happy to say that it does.
Michael: I never thought the play deserved anything less. It certainly stands up to the production.
Q: You two sound as if you’re very comfortable working together. That isn’t always the case in theatre, is it? What is your working relationship like?
Tom: It’s true, Relationships between playwrights and directors are often fraught with anxiety, resentment, impatience, intolerance and outright hostility.
Michael (joking): Yes, and sometimes things then get really bad.
Tom: But seriously, from the very first table reading of Damascus back in 2015 I liked the way Michael talked to actors. I direct a lot myself, and I could understand what he was doing at any given moment and why. There’s a lot of trust between us. We had one serious rupture while working on another project, and it lasted too long, and we were both very grateful when it was over and we could work together again. We’re friends. Very, very good friends.
Q: Ultimately, what do you hope the audience will take away from Paradise Lost?
Michael: Some fresh thinking hopefully on big ideas such as free will, issues of misogyny, the origins of various philosophical as well as literary biases.
Tom: The implications of the idea of God’s boundless love and magnanimity. St. Francis of Assisi, for one, believed that ultimately God would pardon even Satan. But for me, I hope foremost that they come away from the play with a fresh appreciation of theatre as a form of story-telling that has not yet lost its ability to enlighten and inspire at the same time it enchants and entertains.
Q: What’s next?
Michael: Paradise Regained?
Tom: Over my dead body!
Q: Will the show go on tour?
Michael: We hope it goes on tour. We’d love to play out here in Los Angeles.
We run in New York at least until March 1 and then we’ll see.
We have a couple of new projects we’re thinking about.
One being a musical.
Thanks very much Tom and Michael!
TOM DULACK BIO
Tom Dulack wrote Incommunicado and won the Kennedy Center Award for New American Plays. He also wrote Friends Like These and won the Kaufman & Hart Prize for New American Comedy. Dulack’s other plays include Breaking Legs, Diminished Capacity, Solomon’s Child, and 1348, among many others on and off Broadway. In addition to writing the libretti for and directing two operas in NYC, Dulack wrote and directed an adaptation of a Henry Purcell opera King Arthur for a children’s concert series in Munich, Germany while he was the writer and director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s Young Persons Concerts Series (YPCs) from 2005 to 2016, during which time he wrote and directed more than 40 YPCs at Lincoln Center. He has theatre and TV directing credits in NY, Los Angeles and Chicago, and abroad in London, Brussels, and Vienna. He has also published five novels and two works of non-fiction and is Professor of English at the University of Connecticut where he teaches Drama, Shakespeare and Creative Writing courses.
Michael Parva Bio
Michael Parva (Director) is the Artistic Director of the acclaimed The Directors Company, where he developed and directed numerous new plays and musicals including most recently the stage adaption of Terms of Endearment by Dan Gordon starring Molly Ringwald. Over the years he has had the privilege of directing the work of many exceptional playwrights including Marsha Norman’s premiere of Trudy Blue with Judith Ivey and the premiere of Avow by Bill C. Davis. Other notable productions include: The Concrete Christ Trilogy with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kristin Johnston; Murder in the First by Dan Gordon featuring Chad Kimball; and the award-winning Broadway production of Irena’s Vow, starring Tovah Feldshuh. Michael returns to FPA having directed Martin Luther on Trial by Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean and is thrilled to be collaborating again with playwright Tom Dulack on Paradise Lost.