The theme of mistaken identity is familiar fodder on Broadway (One Man, Two Guvnors; Jekyll and Hyde, etc.), but the example that is currently on display at the Walter Kerr Theater is more accidental than thematic, and all the more surprising for that. For one thing, the Author’s Note for The Testament of Mary, which opened here this week, seems better suited to a church bulletin than the Playbill, with six richly illustrated pages about the cult of the Virgin Mary around the world. For another, the woman we meet on stage would be completely out of place in the New Testament, so diametrically different is she from the lasting image all Christians know — and whose iconic status author Colm Toibin explores in his essay — of the pious and obedient Mother of God.
Indeed, Mary’s life having escaped historical record, there are only images — and countless numbers of these, of course — by which her mysterious person may be approximated. This is likely the point of the Prologue to this production by star British director Deborah Warner. The show is prefaced by a 15-minute silent tableau wherein actress Fiona Shaw does a fairly convincing madonna impersonation in the trembling light of multi-colored votive candles: the exact image one might encounter in any church. But if the question “Who was Mary?” can never be satisfyingly answered, a more fruitful line of interrogation in this production is: who do Shaw and Warner intend for her to be?
For Toibin, her identity is actually quite simple. His Testament has little interest in the Mary of the Bible; her he leaves (with a certain frustration, one senses) to hagiographers and the Gospel writers. The woman he has unearthed by excavating his own interpretations of Marian mythology is a mother and that only, albeit one who has seen her child grow apart from her and die a horrible and undeserved death, without her ever coming to his aid or even staying to witness his final moments. For this Mary, as for any mother who has lost a child, no mourning and no forgiveness will ever make her whole again.
Warner and Shaw, however, seem not quite sure what to do with that same woman, who tells her story as a dramatic monologue, set six years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth and looking back on the events surrounding his crucifixion. Inevitable as it probably is, and some ground is certainly laid in this sense by Toibin’s novella (published in 2012), it still comes as a reasonable disappointment to discover this immensely talented and intelligent duo stepping into the first, obvious traps of feminist theory they come to.
Set at a low simmer that frequently boils over into fits of nervous hysteria, Shaw’s Mary exudes a combative confidence in her khaki fatigue pants and slouchy black tunic, strutting back and forth across the cluttered stage, moving ladders and barbed wire with a workman’s ease, while clutching a cigarette and swigging from a bottle as she mimics the Gospel writers who visit her daily and whose job it is to twist her memories into church dogma. She is also mordantly funny, milking Toibin’s language for the slightest vein of irony, when she comments on her son’s sycophantic followers and his own elated opinion of himself, or alludes slyly to the circumstances of his “immaculate” conception.
But Toibin’s Testament is about rather more than women’s histories shrunken through the lens of male patriarchy. To be sure, the headstrong, cynical Mary he has written hardly resembles the Christian saint, but she is a mortal mother living in a world of lies and cowardice and words of love never said – a world of human suffering, in short, where angels should fear to tread, and whose femininity is only a corollary, not the matter itself.
As always, Shaw is fascinating to watch, moving seamlessly from that first, slightly perverse, Renaissance madonna, to a naked and raw Mater Dolorosa cradling a son – or soldier? – on the battlefield of ambitions that is the Calgary she describes. One feels also, with Warner’s direction, that every move, every inflection has been given deadly serious thought, even as Shaw minces and prances across the stage as this or that Apostle, or fills a jug of water to dramatize the wedding feast at Cana, or plays with a handful of scarves to signal Jesus, Martha or her own presence in the events she relates.
However, for a Warner/Shaw fan like myself, who has followed the pair almost religiously (pun intended) since their gender-bending Richard II in 1995, it seems that age has not imparted wisdom. The production has a fierce energy and a set design that evokes equal parts profundity and violence, captured in the hangman’s tree or cross that is suspended over the stage. Yet it fails to strike a tone that would give the story more meaning than show; with its pantomiming narration and immersion-style opening (audiences are invited to crowd onto the stage to see and touch the myriad props up close, including a live vulture), the production looks tailor-made to please Broadway audiences, all the more so as it premiered here: a first for a Warner/Shaw project.
Shaw told NPR’s Robert Siegel in an interview this week, “Like all great symbols, [Mary] has to carry all the meanings and all the desires and all the needs that anybody might want to put on her. So I can only offer my version, helped by Colm’s writing. I’m not trying to pretend to be all the versions — just one.” Certainly, the power of Toibin’s fiction is to let us imagine a different Mary than the improbable one of the Church fathers. Amen, at least, to that.