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Performa 13: Milton Goes Musical in Alexandre Singh’s Whimsical “The Humans”

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“Thou art now a human being, number 43 in an unlimited edition” proclaims Charles Ray (Phillip Edgerley), one of the demi-gods tasked with populating pre-lapsarian earth in artist Alexandre Singh’s Performa 13 commission “The Humans,” which opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday night. A kind of knowing yet earnest musical parody of humankind’s expulsion from Eden told from the perspective of the angels grappling with the immensity of the universe, the consequences of free will, and their own place in the divine hierarchy, Singh’s show tries to put a new spin on a story at least as old as the Old Testament, with very mixed results.

The sprawling musical sets out to tackle a ton of material through an irreverent and playful re-imagining of “Paradise Lost,” a forbear Singh acknowledges with multiple Milton excerpts. Tophole (Sam Crane) and Pantalingua (Elizabeth Cadwallader) are our romantically interested guiding angels in this Edenic allegory, he the disenchanted apprentice and son of Charles Ray, she a philosopher bent on subversion — and the daughter of a mute rabbit goddess named N (Flora Sans). Their efforts to free the humans and then escape the fallen mob’s rebellion are punctuated by appearances by a cat goddess (Simona Bitmaté) — Singh’s apparent nod to the cat meme that currently has the art world in a thrall.

“The Humans” looks terrific. From Singh and Jessica Tankard’s cartoon-like set design to Holly Waddington’s costumes — which make very clear nods to classical Greek sculpture, Renaissance-era Flemish painting, and classic Broadway baroque — the production mines art history with great success to create an eclectically stylized yet coherent combination of styles. The chorus has the movements to match, starting out as a troupe of pasty and robotic jointed statues reminiscent of the animatronic fountains at Caesars Palace before transforming into lewd, leering, and lascivious louts whose sculptural masks (also by Singh) evoke Pieter Bruegel’s paintings of drunks.

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Some of the musical numbers are exceptional, too, like one in which the upstart human statue, Number 31 (Ryan Kiggell), transforms his cohorts from rigid automatons into fleshy beings — not by introducing them to sex or imparting forbidden knowledge, but by teaching them to shit. The Protestant work ethic send-up “Work Is Good, Work Is Holy,” in which the human statues do the robot in unison while the sculptor character cheekily named after Charles Ray expounds the virtues of industriousness and geometry, is another stand-out. And the late numbers “Better to Be a Bee” and “No Joy Without Terror” epitomize the streak of Monty Python-esque humor running through “The Humans.”

The show starts off strong and very funny, and by the three-hour production’s intermission the narrative is chugging along nimbly and very enjoyably. But in the second and third acts, when the action takes a serious turn and bodies start to pile up, the action slows to a grind. In the end, Singh falls back on an over-written and drawn-out courtroom drama format for a finale, in which the preceding two hours’ actions are all laboriously recapped. For a contemporary re-imagining of an exceedingly familiar story, the final chapter of “The Humans” comes off as incredibly unimaginative — and, as such, quite out of keeping with the foregoing action’s winning whimsy.

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Alexandre Singh’s “The Humans” continues at BAM through November 17.

— Benjamin Sutton (@bhsutton)

(Photo credit: Richard Termine.)

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