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The Testament of Mary

So we walk into the Walter Kerr Theater, where The Testament of Mary is currently in previews, and we saw the audience milling around a glass box set to one side of a very cluttered stage.  Being Us, we made our way up there, pronto-pups, and picked our way over and around 1) a ladder, laid flat; 2) several folding chairs, draped with what looked like Army surplus jackets and blankets and a long table; 3) a bird cage with large iron spikes, suitable for building railroads, on the bottom; 4) a rather small live vulture, possibly sedated, certainly remarkably laid-back despite being surrounded by many curious playgoers; 5) an assortment of amphorae, buckets, bottles, and carpenter's tools; 6) two large coils of barbed wire; 7) a wheel on a post, like the one dominating the right-hand side of Breugel the Elder's Crucifixion (http://tinyurl.com/bw4xyuy) until we got to the focus of the scrum, which was Fiona Shaw, robed in rose and Virgin's Mantle Blue, seated on a plastic chair inside a large glass case, holding a lily (for purity) in one hand and an apple (for Eve) in the other, a drift of candles at her feet, gazing out over our heads with a half-smile.  I think it was meant to be beatific, but Fiona Shaw doesn't do beatific.  What she does do is intense and honest and riveting and, oh, yes--harrowing.

That's what The Testament of Mary was.  Harrowing.  In a good way.

I mean, if we presume, on any level at all, that there was a historical personage upon whom the entire glory and shame of organized Christianity was inscribed, he had a mother, right?  And although none of the gospel writers (my son's misfit friends, Mary calls them, hands disdainfully shooing them away from her) record her as saying much of anything at all, she must have had some opinions, right?  She lived quite a while after her son (she can't say his name) died, she was an unwilling witness to the things her son's friends were saying and writing about him (and her).  She must have had some thoughts about that.  Or at least that's what Colm Toibin reasoned when he wrote this play (later a novella).  And she might have been pretty pissed off at the whole thing--including the miracles, which were genuine miracles, in this reading, but possibly best left undone.  Especially Lazarus.  And the Crucifixion?  Even worse than you'd thought, but not for the reasons you might think.

And all this--All this--is conveyed in one, long ecstatic 90 minute monologue by a single woman in a long-sleeved black dress over grey pants and floppy boots she never bothers to zip up.  She never sits still for a moment, moving chairs, ladder, bird cage (the bird itself disappears, along with the glass cage and the candles, before the monologue starts), table, barbed wire, papers, pots, and buckets here and there according to what part of the story she's telling and how she feels about it.  It is movement both restless and purposeful, the almost unconscious activity of a woman who is used to keeping house for men who don't pick up chairs they knock over or put anything back where they've found it. If she creates a cross out of a folded table, a ladder, barbed wire, and nails, well, she's got crosses on her mind, and so does the audience.  From time to time, as if unconsciously, she recreates ones of the great iconic images of Mary we know from art: Pieta, Annunciation, Assumption. And all the time, she talks.  Sometimes of her son, who took up with a gang of misfits, who left home when she begged him not to, who became a stranger she could not talk to, let alone understand.  Frequently of her friends, Mary and Martha and Miriam, all of whom had to cope with miracles in their back yards, which became slightly less miraculous as they had to live with them.  Have you wondered what happened to Lazarus after he was raised?  Yeah.  It wasn't easy on his sisters, is alls I'm saying.

This is a very angry piece, and Fiona Shaw does anger beautifully, in all its shades and manifestations.  There are parts that reminded me a bit of her Medea, bits that (almost impossibly) reminded me of the ghostly witch she played in Season whateveritwas of "True Blood."  At the end of the evening, she looked (understandably) almost as harrowed as the audience, and I wondered how on earth she could go on doing that, night after night, eight performances a week for however long the play runs.  I also wondered how many theatergoers are going to rush to buy expensive Broadway tickets to something that raw, that furious, that intense, that feminist, in the broadest possible sense.  Between them, Colm Toibin and Fiona Shaw leave you nowhere to hide, and that's not particularly fashionable these days.  But, boy, is it ever good theater.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2013 06:37 pm (UTC)
After hearing a much briefer NPR review, it was one of the few expensive Broadway tickets I've put some serious thought into buying. (I still probably won't - because it comes with transportation costs, and finding some place to stay, and time costs... but... damn.)
Apr. 13th, 2013 08:04 pm (UTC)
She's an interesting actress: sometimes she can be mannered (I saw her play the lead in Hedda gabler in Dubblin in c.1990 and she was more like Joycwe Grenfell than anything, which was... odd). Sometimes, she can be powerful, and she is always blackly funny -- I saw her in a revivasl of London Assurance opposite Simon Ruseel beale two years ago and she was magnificent (it takes a great actress to rise to a character named lady gay Spanker, and Shaw did it wonderfully). This sounds like a good role for her -- as Hedda, she was too kinetic, which turned tragedy into melodrama in a few places, which was a shame.
Apr. 14th, 2013 09:43 am (UTC)
Oh, that sounds fascinating. I wish I could see it! Especially as my exam repertoire seems to be morphing into a Marian oratorio with Shakespeare lyrics...
Apr. 14th, 2013 02:56 pm (UTC)
That sounds somehow very different in effect from the premiere production of Testament I saw in Dublin in 2011 with Marie Mullen. I wonder how much of it is the difference between Mullen and Shaw's interpretation. There was anger in places, and resentment, and some guilt, but with Mullen I felt the predominant emotion was unrelenting grief.
Apr. 14th, 2013 03:10 pm (UTC)
I think that's Shaw. Her Mary seems to process grief as fury.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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