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The Testament of Mary

nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
April 24, 2013

The Testament of Mary

Fiona Shaw in a scene from The Testament of Mary | Paul Kolnik

The show starts before the show.  The ushers invite the audience onto the stage to tour through a theatrical Mary museum.  Encased in a glass box, the Virgin Mother herself, played by Fiona Shaw, sits smilingly still, robed in traditional blue, white, and red, lilies in her arm, votive candles at her feet.  Surrounding her cage are: a bench with honey, grapes, and three reefer sticks; a tall tree trunk with a wheel on top; a wooden ladder with barbed wire nearby; a table with a notebook and three huge nails; a spigot; large clay jars; and, chained to a tree stump, a live vulture who is almost as serene as the Madonna herself.  Screeching eerie music plays.  Then the audience finds their seats, a sheer black curtain drops, and the serenity ends.

The Testament of Mary, written by Colm Toibin and directed by Deborah Warner, succeeds to the nth degree in throwing off our traditional, respectful images of Mother Mary to reveal a raging woman underneath.  We've seen shows where Mary is puzzled by her son’s mission and anguished over his crucifixion.  We’ve never before seen a Mary so traumatized, so terrorized, so mentally broken, so afraid to be singled out, spied upon, and perhaps arrested. 

As the play begins, the woman revered as the Mother of God is dressed in dark, drab modern dress, waiting for two men who want to record her story for posterity.  (The evangelist Luke comes to my mind.)  She dreads reliving her memories for them.  “He will not come again,” she insists—but “he” isn’t who you think.  Eventually she talks about “My son…I can’t bring myself to say his name,” who surrounded himself with "misfits".  Her wry observations elicit laughs from the audience.  Then she recalls that terrifying day when a Roman soldier at the foot of the cross seemed to stare at her, and a man nearby fed rabbits to a caged buzzard.  She recalls the attention-grabbing miracles and her humiliation over people's stares.  She argues that the apostles remember things one way, and she another--including how she reacted just after her son died. 

Fiona Shaw--best known in some circles as Harry Potter's faultfinding Aunt Petunia--pulls off a tour de force.  She exudes the terror of a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder victim who can't, and yet must, relive harrowing events.  She displays tenderness over her late husband's memory and exasperation over her son's fawning followers.  She has moments of emotional--and yes, physical--nakedness that would give the anti-blasphemy protesters against this play heart attacks.  All this while Shaw deftly handles the aforementioned reefer, ladder, barbed wire, spigot, nails, and other props as instruments to convey her own and her son's tale.

As much as I enjoyed Shaw's solo performance, I'm unsure about the play itself.  I admire playwright Toibin's boldness in blasting our sacrosanct images of Mary, and the humor he evokes, but he violates the story's timeline.  For example, Toibin has just-resuscitated Lazarus join his sisters Mary and Martha with Jesus and his mother at the wedding in Cana.  In the Bible, changing water to wine was Jesus' first miracle, small and subtle, and raising Lazarus one of his last, big and public.  Reverse the order, and it's like cramming a teenager into toddler's clothes. The wine miracle is no longer a semi-secret favor as in the scriptures,but a brazen, public, embarrassing display as everyone gawks at the corpse-raiser and his mother.

Also, when is this play happening?  If days after the Crucifixion, why are the apostles pressing Mary for biographical information when they themselves would be just as fearful and traumatized?  If years after, even if still upset over her son's execution, why isn't Mary displaying some joy over seeing him alive again?  Is The Testament of Mary denying the Resurrection?  That life-restoring event is symbolized (I won't say how; you'll spot it), but not confirmed. 

Is this confusion of events a convention of the play, or an indication of Mary's state of mind?  Is it even Mary we're seeing?  The playbill gives the setting as "Now", and no character name is listed next to Fiona Shaw's.  Is this a crazed woman who thinks she's Mary?  Or is the blasting away of our simon-pure image of Mary so mind-blowing that it blasts away time and space? 

I give credit to Mel Mercier for his spooky original music and sound design, and to Ann Roth for her somber costumes.  Tom Pye did wonderful scenic design with the stage and props, but sometimes I found the sliding panels in the back distracting.  

Although the illogical parts of the play stretched credibility--and the faithlessness and despair displayed probably offended my sensibilities--The Testament of Mary did make me think and wonder afterward, and I have to give it credit for that.