It seemed like a stunt at first, inviting the audience on stage to see the set of “The Testament of Mary” – the live vulture (we’re told his name is Pinhead), the cave underneath the stage with a glass door so that we can see the clay urns, the odd assortment of objects/artifacts, and then Fiona Shaw as the Virgin Mary, motionless as a statute (except she’s silently murmuring), dressed in orange and that particular blue used in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child — Della Robbia blue — holding calla lilies and an apple, surrounded by votive candles and encased in a big plastic cube.
But then we get back in our seats, and this “pre-show” suddenly makes sense, as the cube lifts and Fiona Shaw takes off her robe and tunic, and stands before us in a plain black frock – the Blessed Mary becoming the woman Mary.
We who walked past her were like churchgoers, viewing the objects around her like reliquaries and treating her as the iconic image, not a human being.
“Mary, the mother of Jesus, comes to us through many images; she does not come in words…” playwright Colm Toibin, who has written this play as an adaptation of his 2012 novella, writes in a long insert in the program, graced with some of the famous paintings and sculptures depicting her. “Slowly, the idea came to me that I would give a voice to Mary.”
The Mary that Toibin gives voice to for 85 minutes on the stage of the Walter Kerr tells us what it was like to see her son (she never mentions his name) grow apart from her and surround himself with “a group of misfits.” She is simultaneously awed, and, one senses, revolted by the bringing of Lazarus back from the dead, and she give us a similar personal take on several other such incidents recounted in the Christian Bible. She talks about what it was like to watch her son while he was dying, and confesses with much guilt to leaving early in order to escape being captured. She details her resistance to the efforts of unnamed others (clearly apostles) to fit her into a storyline that will “change the world.” She is, in other words, no longer silent. She scoffs, and shouts, scowls and suffers.
She also strips naked, dunks her body in a pool of water, climbs a ladder, plays with barbed wire, slams chairs and tables loudly on the floor as if to make sure we’re awake. Every line she utters seems matched to a physical action, which may or may not have anything to do with what she is saying.
Movie buffs know Fiona Shaw as Harry Potter’s Aunt Petunia. TV-watchers, at least those with premium cable, might know her as the evil Marnie in True Blood. Theatergoers have seen up close the breadth and depth of her intensity, in works such as “Medea” a decade ago on Broadway and far more frequently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, most recently in Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman.” Testament director Deborah Warner has been her frequent collaborator over the past quarter century.
The track record of their collaboration, the care with which scenic designer Tom Pye chose all those objects on the stage, the awe-inspiring lighting by Jennifer Tipton, all suggest that “The Testament of Mary” should be a deeply resonant work of theater. But I’m afraid at some point in this play I came back full circle to my initial impression, that this production was something of a stunt; all the attention-getting theatricality started to cause my attention to drift. I am sure there was meaning in Shaw’s over-the-top stage business and busyness; perhaps it will come to me after more quiet contemplation.
The Testament of Mary
At the Walter Kerr Theater
By Colm Toibin; directed by Deborah Warner; performed by Fiona Shaw; sets by Tom Pye; costumes by Anne Roth; lighting by Jennifer Tipton; music and sound by Mel Mercier
Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: $50 – $135
The Testament of Mary is scheduled to run through June 16, 2013