Events, The Muse, Theatre

Paradise Lost Finds Modern Meaning

In a time when the ailing American Dream is paralyzed, with optimism as its life support, artists capitalize on our anxieties by featuring theater, film and visual art pieces that reflect the current standard of living, sometimes as a comedy with a cloyingly hopeful outcome. This approach, although demanded, desensitizes people, especially young adults who are flying their college coops to independently nest elsewhere. The showcase of “Paradise Lost” by Clifford Odets is a timely performance by the American Repertory Theater, exposing the impotency and weakness of Uncle Sam in a time when American citizens are scrambling for an outreached hand. The play acts as a mirror for the audience to place themselves in the characters of this Depression-era drama, but does so without the saccharine-laced optimism.

The director, Daniel Fish, takes a daringly expressionistic approach to the Odets masterpiece, his style complementing the controversial new A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus’s philosophy of turning the traditional theatre on its head.

Fish’s symbolism in expressing his descent of man is most obviously depicted with the death of Ben Gordon (Hale Appleman), the former Olympian-turned-social-recalcitrant to maintain his marriage and status. Gordon, who epitomized success, achievement and happiness, was not easy to tag antagonist or protagonist, as the desperation caused by the social and economic climate blurs lines of favoritism by the audience toward one character or the other.

The set design is centered on a projector screen that is used throughout the production, to cast the internal, hidden problems of American life onto all of us. Instead of trying to achieve a voyeuristic angle, the enlarged images facing the audience act more like an enormous mirror of contemporary life than a window into the past, also a nod to Odets’ idea of the “living newspaper.”

Fish’s expressionist vision is best portrayed with the casting of T. Ryder Smith as both Mr. May, the arsonist that offers his get-rich-quick services to Leo Gordon, and as Julie Gordon, the ailing son of the destitute family. With two pivotal characters being played by the same actor, Fish subtlety reminds the audience of the forces looming behind desperate decisions. Mr. May is projected on the giant backdrop in a haunting film negative, playing with our ideas of identifying what is positive and what isn’t, and the black-and-white direness of a family man’s desperation.

“Paradise Lost” is not meant to be a feel-good play that one skips away from clicking their heels singing the praises of the Sweet Land of Liberty. Instead, the artful and thoughtful combination of set deign, characterization and dialogue created by Odets but tweaked by Fish leaves the audience in a somber state of self-consciousness.

“Paradise Lost” is ongoing until March 20th. Ticket information may be found at

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