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Peter T Chattaway

The Testament of Mary

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Marilyn Stasio @ Variety:

Where to begin? Well, there’s a live vulture on stage, and an uprooted tree suspended in mid-air, and a pool of water that appears to be bottomless. And that’s before the house lights even go down on “The Testament of Mary.” The matchless Fiona Shaw commands the stage in this solo piece adapted by Irish scribe Colm Toibin from the 2012 novella he fashioned as an interior monologue delivered by Mary, the mother of the historical Christ and, in Christian legend, the Mother of God and the Queen of Heaven. It’s safe to say you’ve never seen anything like it.

Helmer Deborah Warner, a first-hand creative collaborator on this hugely imaginative work, succinctly conveys the point of it in a single powerful image. Before the play begins, she has positioned Shaw inside a Plexiglas cube, sitting in a classic pose of the Blessed Virgin familiar from countless religious paintings and church statuary. Clad in Mary’s traditional blue cloak, she holds a single stalk of lilies to signify her purity and is encircled by lighted votive candles — a beloved but distant image of worship.

Moments later, when Shaw appears in character — a tall, lean figure with burning eyes — Mary has been stripped off all those iconic symbols. The celestial blue cape is gone, as are the candles, the lilies and all trappings of religious veneration. As the mother of a son whose name she can’t bring herself to speak aloud, this Mary is no saint but a grieving mother who has clung to her sorrow for years, for decades, possibly for generations, down to the present day.

The premise of the play is that Mary is the silent woman of the New Testament. Generations of religious art may have led us to think we know her, but she actually has very little to say for herself in the Gospels. Not until now, when she has finally been cornered by John the apostle, who wants her testimony for his Gospel.

Toibin, a literary heavyweight admired for his emotional depth and spare, elegant style, has said that he wrote this piece to give voice to “a woman’s anger, her power, her politics, her wit.” His intention was to restore to solid flesh and blood “a woman who was human and mortal” before she became a religious icon.

Warner honors the scribe’s intention with what appears to be her single piece of direction: play it human. That’s exactly what Shaw’s soul-baring perf delivers — a mother whose grief at the loss of her child is singularly human, but also so timeless and universal, it seems to contain the rage, the fury and the suffering of every mother who ever lost a child. . . .

Those blessed Apostles? ”A band of misfits,” in Mary’s furious condemnation of these hot-headed young “fools and malcontents,” so carried away by the high drama of proclaiming their leader the “King of the Jews” and “Son of God” that they deliver her son to his executioners.

The great miracles of her son’s career? “I want no more miracles,” she says, questioning the unnatural act of raising Lazarus from the dead and mocking the wedding in Cana for its excessive consumption.

But Mary directs the full force of her fury toward the crucifixion itself. No, her son didn’t bear his excruciating ordeal in silence. He screamed and howled and moaned like a tortured animal. And as for that myth that he rose from the dead after three days — well, let’s not examine that one too closely. . . .

David Rooney @ Hollywood Reporter:

NEW YORK – In a pre-show segment before
The Testament of Mary
gets underway,
Fiona Shaw
sits in meditative silence in a glass box. Wrapped in a cerulean blue cloak over a coral pink gown, she appears as a familiar depiction of the Virgin – a Bellini or Raphael portrait brought to life. The audience makes a pilgrimage onstage to visit this shrine, stepping around terracotta urns and other props, ancient and modern, that will be used throughout the play. But something appears unsettlingly askew in an image that for centuries has represented piety, humility, serenity and succor for the woes of the world.

Perhaps it’s the troubled intensity with which Shaw mutters unheard words to herself. Or the obsessive agitation with which she turns an apple in her left hand. Or possibly the live vulture perched nearby. In
Colm
Toibin
’s harrowing theatrical monologue, the stoical grace traditionally attributed to this most beloved figure in religious iconography is stripped away by degrees, exposing the raw pain and anger of an unforgiving mother grieving the senseless loss of her son.

A dense, boldly unorthodox piece for risk-averse Broadway, it has been directed with transfixing focus by
Deborah Warner
, whose frequent collaborations with Shaw go back 25 years. And like their last partnership on Broadway a decade ago with
Medea
, this play takes a figure from the ancient world, enshrouded in myth, and catapults her into modern times – or more accurately, into all time – as a flesh-and-blood woman.

Toibin published
The Testament of Mary
as a novella last year to major acclaim, and even by the elevated standards of this uncommonly gifted Irish writer, it’s a work of stunning directness, the austerity of its prose matched by its soul-piercing empathy. The play in its original version predates the book, performed at the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival.

The stage treatment is different in that, inevitably, it sacrifices the mesmerizing quietness of the first-person narrator’s voice in the novella. On the page, when Mary sifts through events of the past and her own conflicted responses to them, it’s a mournful internalized dialogue. But unlike the intimate relationship between reader and book, theater is a collective experience. It imposes a level of artifice and intellectual distance on the exchange, particularly in Warner’s conceptualized presentation. But the imagination and emotional impact of the narrative remain striking despite that shift.

Both the novel and the play start with the same words: “They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world.” Mary is speaking of her son’s followers, the keepers whose task is to record her recollections of the Crucifixion, the events leading up to it and those that followed. Unable to bring herself to say the name of Jesus, she also is resistant to the disciples’ request for a simple factual account that meets their needs as authors of the Gospel, intent on establishing the martyrdom of the man they call the Son of God. . . .

During the course of the play, Shaw tokes compulsively on cigarettes, hauls around vessels of water, restlessly dons and removes clothing, rearranges the sparse furniture or overturns it in a rage, strips naked and plunges into a well as if to wash away the horror Mary has witnessed and her guilt over fleeing the scene of her greatest sorrow. It’s a performance requiring enormous reserves of physical and emotional strength, and Shaw meets its demands with her customary ferocity and intelligence.

Provocative as much of the content is, Toibin is not doing anything so blunt as a revisionist interpretation of the Scriptures. He is undertaking a nuanced psychological exploration of a figure whose nobility is due in part to her eternal silence, rendering her instead here as a woman who will not be silenced.

Mary regards the disciples as weak misfits; the miracles, at least in part, as embellished second-hand accounts; and the crowd of followers that grew as her son’s fame spread as “a carnival with every malcontent and half-crazed soothsayer in its wake.” She sees Jesus as a victim of some kind of cult of celebrity, gazing at her without recognition as she attempts to warn him of the danger to his life. Her account of that interaction, during the Wedding at Cana, is among the play’s more hypnotic episodes.

The drama crescendos with the Crucifixion, powerfully evoked by Warner and Shaw using coils of barbed wire, a ladder, and heavy iron spikes. Irrespective of an audience member’s beliefs, it would seem impossible to be unmoved by the agony of the mother onstage as she relives that cruel loss. In one of Toibin’s most disturbing passages, Mary finds odd comfort in distraction as her eye keeps being drawn to the macabre spectacle of a man feeding live rabbits to a huge predatory bird, its cage littered with their half-dead corpses. Despite the detailed specificity of the events being recounted, there’s a universality to aspects of this play that will connect to anyone who has experienced extreme grief.

Mary’s account of her subsequent flight from Calvary, and of the false solace of a dream that has come to be accepted by the disciples as historical fact, makes the aftermath equally compelling. But the play’s bitter final words on redemption and its cost are its most devastating. . . .

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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