In her actual medieval memoir, which was rediscovered in the 1930s, Margery Kempe seems almost as extreme in her devotion as her 15thcentury contemporary, Joan of Arc. The English woman tells us in her book of her weeping and shrieking for Jesus, of her spiritual visions and holy visitations, of her decision to overcome temptation and turn her marriage chaste, and of her pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome.
But in the current revival at the Duke on 42nd Street of John Wulp’s 1958 play “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe,” which was inspired by Kempe’s 600-year-old book, the character of Margery Kempe seems like something of a con artist. And the tone of the play, as directed by Austin Pendleton, registers somewhere between a picaresque like “Candide” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.”
In the first scene of the play, Kempe leaves her husband and six children to set out on adventures and to become a Somebody. The first character she encounters, named Virgil Cicero Tubbs, convinces her to buy his brewery, so that she can become notorious, because notorious people make a lot of money: “Virtue pays their Bed and Board, all the while clicking its tongue in disapproval.” She buys the brewery, but it fails, because the beer tastes awful, and because the male customers assume that, since it’s owned by a woman, it’s actually a house of prostitution.
She returns distraught to her husband, but soon she leaves him again for another project: She decides to reverse direction and try to become a saint. “I’ve never been one to do things by halves,” Margery declares. “When I Sinned, I Sinned greatly, and now that I’m to be Good, I want to be Better than anyone else.”
In a program note, Wulp describes the title character in his play as “a woman who did not want her life to be defined either by men or by the strictures of society.” That may be true of the actual historical figure, but it is hard to embrace the Margery on stage as a proto-feminist, given some of her shenanigans. At one point she flatters the local vicar, telling him that God praised the vicar by name when she was conversing with the Almighty. She is evidently hoping this will encourage him to aid her in her quest for sainthood. He tells her true saints make a miracle.”Make a Miracle. Make a Miracle. Make a Miracle,” she says to herself like a mantra, and she sets out to do just that.
There are two problems with the Voltairean touches in “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe.” First, they undermine the promise of entering the world (and the mind) of a medieval mystic; satire keeps us at a distance — or, more precisely, keeps us in the modern world. Second, Wulp is no Voltaire. For that matter, Austin Pendleton is no Mel Brooks. There is pointed dialogue, clever ironies. There is talent on stage. Andrus Nichols, who played the title role of Bedlam’s Saint Joan, makes a fine Margery, whether scheming or devoutly crying or annoying those around her. The rest of the nine-member cast takes on almost three dozen roles, as Margery’s foils or dupes or adversaries — whether her whiny children, or gossipy neighbors, or fellow pilgrims to Jerusalem and Rome, who gripe more like modern tourists. The top-notch design team (including scenic design by the playwright) creates an effective minimalist storybook look. But the entertainment goes just so far – and not as far as two hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. Long before “The Saintliness of Margery” ends, you’re likely to hear a voice in your head saying: “I get it already.”
The Saintliness of Marjory Kempe
At Duke at 42nd Street
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Scenic design by John Wulp, lighting design by Jennifer Tipton and Matthew Richards, costume design by Barbara Bell, and sound design & original music by Ryan Rumery.
Cast: Andrus Nichols, Vance Quincy Barton, LaTanya Borsay, Timothy Doyle, Michael Genet, Ginger Grace, Jason O’Connell, Pippa Pearthree and Thomas Sommounder
Tickets: $55 to $85
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including an intermission.