nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
November 3, 2009
Cynics may deride the world premiere of Heidi Schreck's Creature as a haphazardly plotted series of medieval vignettes draped around one doozy of a case of postpartum depression. Those who enjoy theatrical craftsmanship for craftsmanship's sake will be won over by director Leigh Silverman's ensemble of actors' exploration of the subjective barrier between revelation and madness, between liberation and imprisonments corporeal and patriarchal. Critics will either accept the lack of narrative thrust as an artistic liberty to be expected of a member of the experimental collective Machiqq (as is Schreck) or will become frustrated by this very poetic, meandering play. Indeed, the current staging of Creature at Soho's Ohio Theatre by Page 73 Productions and New Georges is in many ways fantastical and occasionally fantastic, including in that it allows for such diverse and fair readings.
In 1401 in Lynn, England, a mercurial beer baroness named Margery Kempe follows the birth of her first child with visitations from a shape-shifting devil and an unseen (though purple robed) vision of Jesus Christ. Apparently disinterested in her new role as mother, Kempe's ambition tempts her toward sainthood, a desire complicated by her insatiable delight in things carnal. Beset with a husband who vacillates between blue-color lug and standard Old-Timey chauvinist, Kempe's search for divinity plays out as a kind of spiritual road story; on the would-be saint's journey of discovery she engages in impassioned and philosophical dialogues with a priest, an anchoress, and a wee hazelnut, always allowing for more than a few potential roundabouts into tongue-wagging madness.
There is a lot going on in Schreck's historical fiction (the real Margery Kempe eventually bore 14 children and wrote what many consider to be the world's first autobiography, though it is doubtful that the Kempe of antiquity shares half of the zaniness of Schreck's creation). Unfortunately, without a strong narrative arc, there is little to dread or anticipate in the travails of Margery Kempe; it is never entirely clear what is at stake in her world, nor is it immediately evident what the sum of Creature's many lovely parts are intended to add up to. Without an identifiable dramatic structure, fascination with this episode in the life of a dynamic character may (for some) slowly transform to frustration and antipathy.
That's the bad news; and as bad news goes, a limp story can sound like a cry from the gallows. However, there is enough good to be said for this defiantly theatrical production—in terms of passion and innovation—to capture the interest of many a theatergoer.
Creature is driven by an imaginative performance by Sofia Jean Gomez as Margery Kempe. With such heavy themes as deification and execution in the ether about Kempe, Gomez does well in opting for the soft-sell approach; without inhibition, she has crafted a character whose comic turns and charming lunacy cover fissures of fear and despair. Gomez never falters, maintaining a beguiling balance between pathos and pleasantry. I suspect this shall not be the first (or the last) review to compare Gomez to a young Joan Cusack, but the assessment is meant as one of great compliment.
Gomez is surrounded by a fine supporting cast. As Margery's husband, John, Darren Goldstein is grounded and easygoing, offering the kind of performance often unfortunately overlooked for its restrained simplicity; though the script places some unreasonable shifts of temperament on John's shoulders, Goldstein carries the task ably. Jeremy Shamos is warm and sympathetic as Father Thomas, a world-weary member of the Church, and Tricia Rodley compliments his tone as a put-upon nurse in the employ of the Kempes. With an odd vocal intonation that reminds in equal parts of Charles Nelson Reilly and Will Ferrell, Will Rogers is amusing and at times horrifying in dual roles as the devil Asmodeus and a young man infatuated with Margery; though his playing style seems occasionally at odds with the rest of the company, Rogers is a fascinating presence, deserving of a role that will more clearly showcase his unique talents.
The ensemble's standout performer, however, is Marylouise Burke. Appearing late in Creature as Juliana of Norwich, a woman previously saddled with her own set of revelations, Burke's performance arguably grounds Schreck's madcap play, offering resonance, wisdom, and clarity; Juliana of Norwich acts like an oracle to Margery Kempe's traveling hero, and their duologue is much of the reason why this ambling play ultimately finds its footing.
Creature features an outstanding technical design, far more evocative and ingenious than most of off-Broadway's current fare. Rachel Hauck's neo-gothic set marries perfectly with the Ohio's existing industrial architecture, utilizing exposed beams, winches, and candles akimbo to wonderful effect. Matt Frey's lighting design and Katie Down's soundscape are powerfully transportive, and include nerve-jangling cues to rival any of the recent autumnal scare-flicks. Theresa Squire's costumes offer an intriguing blend of the ancient and the anachronistic—a stylistic nod supported by Schreck's time-warp sensibilities—though the results occasionally call attention to themselves: a scene between a character seemingly ripped from the celluloid of Mel Gibson's Braveheart and another from the pages of an L.L. Bean seasonal catalogue comes to mind, and the inclusion of high-top sneakers with otherwise period costumes made for a head-scratcher.
To be sure, whatever quibbles one may have with Schreck's basic storytelling, there is no denying the beauty of her prose. Her dialogue vibrates with the kind of allegorical language seldom heard from contemporary American playwrights, making her voice more akin to a novelist or beat poet. Symbolism and metaphor flourish in Schreck's writing, including an unresolved but fascinating meditation on gender; it cannot be an accident that Schreck has seen Kempe to be failed by the many men in her life (from her spouse to her spiritual guides to the big J.C. Himself), and yet the face of God is that of a woman. Schreck has a created a very funny, very human portrait of one human's search for the divine, who ultimately discovers peace and the power of the Creator not in the hands of the Lord or the pews of any church, but in structure and family. Though some may cry deus ex machina, others will find such a humanistic resolution the feel-good ending of the holiday season.