Hurray for Hieronymus! Martha Clarke Re-imagines His Magical Hell

I urge you to see the new production of Martha Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights at the Minetta Lane Theatre, not least because the signature piece that Ms. Clarke created almost 25 years ago is so transparently lovely and sexy.

While her troupe of dancers is beautiful and utterly natural in its near-nudity, the work as a whole achieves a miraculous theatrical purity. As with the naked simplicity of Peter Brook’s 55-minute The Grand Inquisitor, Ms. Clarke’s 60-minute production is complete and amounts to a revolutionary statement.

There’s isn’t—praise be!—a video screen in sight. Garden of Earthly Delights isn’t yet another movie effect or virtual reality in the horror vacui of today’s desperate techno-theater. To the contrary, it fills the empty space with the natural stage magic and mystery of the human body through dance, music, art and light.

It’s been said by some that Ms. Clarke hasn’t created a theater piece because it doesn’t use language. Don’t listen to them; they’re crazy. Anything that takes place in a theater is theater; and any space can be a theater. The important thing is that the language of Garden of Earthly Delights speaks directly to us not through words, but through the spirit.

 

IN RE-IMAGINING Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th-century triptych of Edenic innocence, earthly sin and hell, Ms. Clarke hasn’t attempted a re-creation of the iconic painting. (A photo could do that.) She’s found a timeless essence instead, and her production possesses the mood and unfolding rhythm of a reverie.

Imagination, if you will, is the special effect. Her use of stage technology is naïvely, sweetly old-fashioned. She uses the equivalent of dry ice, a haze machine, to create painterly pools of mist in hell, and aerial devices invented by trusty Flying by Foy to create extraordinary scenes of choreographed flight.

We’re meant to see the wires and pulleys of the flying machines. In theater, it’s always O.K. if we see the wires. In fact, it’s preferable. Theatrical wonder comes when we see them and we don’t.

Garden of Earthly Delights is artless that way, conjuring up illusions of sin and sensuality. Richard Peaslee’s haunting and masterly score is central to the entire experience. (The three musicians onstage, costumed like solemn monks, play cello, woodwinds and percussion, and sometimes they join in the action.)

Everyday objects are used to stunning effect—a bass drum that beats and crushes a sinner to death; the sight and sound of barren tree branches flaying people alive; the cello that impales its sacrificial human lover in a murderous act of autoeroticism.

Good to be in hell with Martha Clarke at such times! Yet I tend to think it’s impossible for mere mortals to create hell for us—unless, by chance, they’ve been there first. Like Rimbaud (“I believe that I am in hell, therefore I am there”).

The kingdom of Garden of Earthly Delights belongs to animals—human or otherwise. The piece begins rivetingly with unearthly creatures majestically entering Eden on all fours at the beginning of creation, where everything is delicately suggested in space, including irresistible, delighted flight.

The discovery of sex after the Fall is wryly funny, with tempting Woman squatting invitingly with her bum in the air and poor Man not knowing what to do with his quivering instrument at all. I recall, too, a hypnotic river crossing of gently rolling bodies; a crucifixion lit by fiery twigs (the wonderful lighting design is by Christopher Akerlind); sculptured bodies in shadow; the Ascension; the devil’s chimes that lead to earthly delights where a nun shits yams and all humanity is now clothed and shameful.

Then come the painterly visions of hell, where bodies float in the mist of a limitless horizon, while others swoop and kill, until a spirit forever spins and spins in space to the redemptive laughter and slender hope of innocence regained.

 

IT’S AN ARTICLE of faith with me that the raison d’être—and opportunity—of great theater resides in its imaginative uniqueness. Theater thrives as an urgently needed alternative to movies and TV, not as their pale imitator. I’ve been asked why I keep shlepping, even so, to the kind of fashionably high-tech, multimedia events that I believe signal theater’s death. The answer is, in hopes that I’m wrong.

Hurray for Hieronymus! Martha Clarke Re-imagines His Magical Hell