Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Theater Review: The Testament of Mary

Mary Wants Us to See Her in a New Light, but This Version of Jesus' Mother is Too Dark
By Lauren Yarger
She's angry and bitter. Afraid and cautious. She's not the virginal, almost-goddess to whom people still pray (especially if you're Catholic) and we get the impression that she doesn't pray much herself.

She's Mary, the mother of Jesus -- or at least how a 21st-Century writer and a talented actress want us to see her. The "truth should be spoken at least once in the world" The Testament of Mary's slogan screams at us, as though what we know about Mary, primarily from the bible, is totally in error.

Fiona Shaw, in a powerful and demanding solo performance, takes on the character created by Colm Toibin, adapted for the Broadway stage from his bestselling novella of the same name. Audiences entering the Walter Kerr Theatre are invited up on stage prior to the performance where various props and a live vulture are on display. Suddenly, Shaw walks out and takes a seat inside a glass room where candles have been placed almost in an altar-like fashion at her feet. The crowds filing up onto stage look like a procession in church  on their way to view a relic or something (lighting designed by Jennifer Tipton highlights arches in the theater's ceiling to give a cathedral effect.)

But if anyone feels a stirring of the divine, a kinship with the blue-robed Mary that one might expect to find shining in a museum painting, the image is quickly stripped away -- stage hands obtrusively come out and dismantle the glass room (thankfully taking the vulture with them) and Mary sheds her royal robes to reveal a black tunic over leggings and boots. And the puzzling staging (what time period is this? How long ago did the crucifixion take place?) of the 90-minute soliloquy begins.

Smoking cigarettes taken from a pocket in a jacket that looks like it was bought in an Army surplus store (Ann Roth designs the costumes), Mary tells us she is being watched after the crucifixion and visitors (we assume that they are apostles, though she doesn't identify them) want to record her words and memories to promulgate their version of how and why her son was put to death. They aren't interested in the truth.

She hasn't slept much and still can't even mention Jesus' name, she tells us. She fears that if she utters it "something inside me will break." Not only was she estranged from Jesus during his ministry, denying that she was one of his followers, but she also left him to die alone on the cross. She snuck  away because she feared for her own life, she says. The stress eats away at her much like that vulture might if given a chance and she constantly paces around the stage. Poorly directed by Deborah Warner, she busies herself endlessly with senseless, distracting tasks like shifting a ladder around, moving barbed wire, chopping a fish or constantly splashing water on herself from a modern spigot, which spills into a sort of pool or well.

More unnecessary movement is added with scrims and sections of backdropping that move and reveal shades of other colored backgrounds (Tom Pye designs the set). The tall expanse dwarfs Mary while keeping focus on a lone white tree limb upstage with what looks like a bird -- hopefully not that live vulture -- perched on a wagon wheel on top. Most of the action takes place in dim lighting and is accented by moody sounds and original music by Mel Mercer.

She's not happy, this Mary, and she can't contain her disappointment in Jesus, who became rather haughty in his fame and who hung out with a bunch of "misfits." She discounts some of his miracles, bringing into question whether wine already was in the casks at the wedding at Cana. She implies that Jesus was cruel in waking Lazarus from the dead since his friend only continued to suffer horribly after being called forth from the tomb. She depicts Lazarus' sister Martha as some sort of brainwashed zealot.

The main idea of Toibin's fable is that we're supposed to relate to Mary as a real woman, especially as a mother who is grieving. I can go there with him on that. Mary was a real woman -- not some sinless goddess -- and she certainly would have grieved the loss of her son. She's an inspiring figure and we don't know enough about her and I would like to know more. The play's best moment, in fact, comes when Mary recounts first learning that her son would be crucified. She recalls a crucifixion she once witnessed. As the memory of that long-ago horror sharpens, so does her understanding of what will happen to her son and Shaw skillfully conveys the raw terror and the accompanying suffering and grief of a mother unable to help her child. She physically draws into a pose that shows that she is being crucified as well. Yes, it could have happened just like that. It's a beautiful scene. I wish they'd all been like that.

Where Toibin left me (and Mary, some might argue) behind on this journey is when he walked down a dark path and asked us to leave behind everything we know about Mary -- and Jesus for that matter. Mary implies that Jesus was no immaculate conception. She says that since she wasn't there (and therefore could hardly have inspired a Pietà) she doesn't know whether he was buried after dying on the cross, implying that the tomb might have been empty all along. She says stories of his resurrection were birthed when she and Mary (Lazarus' other sister) somehow had the exact same dream about Jesus appearing to them. A coincidence that got recorded and blown out of all proportion, it seems.

Toibin's play starts at the end, however. There is no room for reinventing the beginning. The only reason we can join Mary at this point in her life is because we know the story of her son's life and death as told in the bible an other historical writings that survive from the time. Without that "backstory," we would have no idea who this woman is or what she is talking about.  So to throw away what we know just because this Mary  smokes, drinks and gets naked (yes, Shaw ends up completely nude in the attempt to "strip bare" this character), requires having more faith in the playwright and his imagination than in eyewitness accounts, abundant early first-century accounts and many Messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus (and by no one else in history). Pretty good for someone stupid enough to hang out with a bunch of misfits (at least one of whom was his brother and also Mary's kid. Did she forget that?)..... Sorry, it's not believable and neither is that story about two people having the exact same dream.

Despite all that, The Testament of Mary has received Tony and Outer Critics Circle nominations for Best Play this season.Shaw is nominated in the Outstanding Solo Performance category for the Outer Critics Circle Awards. It's deserved. She gives a strong performance and imbues Mary with a female perspective missing in the novella, where Toibin's male voice isn't disguised in character's first person narrative.

Mary only gets to tell her story a few more times on Broadway, however. The show, originally scheduled to run through June 16, has announced an early closing of its run this Sunday. For information and tickets: http://www.testamentonbroadway.com/.

Christians might also like to know:
-- Show posts a Mature advisory
-- Nudity

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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