A solo musical about Mother Teresa performed by a man in drag inside a closet? This may sound like an irreverent campy nun musical boosted to greater sacrilege because she is now officially Saint Teresa of Calcutta. And did I mention the drag performer lip-syncs?
But “I Am Sending You The Sacred Face,” the latest inventive theater from director-performer Joshua William Gelb’s Theater in Quarantine, is actually something much closer to reverent. This won’t surprise anybody who knows the work of its writer, composer and narrator Heather Christian, whose “Prime: A Practical Breviary,” earlier this year was a 10-song cycle about the early-morning prayers performed by Christian monks.
As with that earlier piece, Christian’s original compositions for “Sacred Face” nod to liturgical music from the Middle Ages, and incorporate African-American gospel, soul, blues, and jazz. The lyrics and monologues in the 40-minute musical are derived from Teresa’s public and recently revealed private writings, but also passages from the 16th century mystic St. John of the Cross. This does not produce anywhere near a conventional bio-drama. It’s closer to dance theater, with Gelb performing — posing, really — in the eight-square foot closet of his East Village apartment, which since the March shutdown has been his livestreamed stage for a variety of theater pieces from dance to serials to adaptations of short stories to classic absurdist drama. But, amid the abstract and often abstruse poetic language of “Sacred Face” (including Latin incantations), one can discern biographical tidbits, as well as the personal theology of the Albanian-born founder of the Missionaries of Charity:
“…without suffering, the work we do is social work,
which is good and fine and helpful but
nothing to do with your soul, in my opinion…”
Teresa’s character emerges as a cross between the other-worldly and the utterly practical and self-aware. “I was not born poor, I chose it, along with this outfit,” Christian says in voiceover, as we see Gelb posing theatrically in the nun’s austere blue-trimmed white sari. “There is symbolism in the outfit, always. There is marketing.” The blue represents hope, the white is like that of a smile, and represents faith. “This is a white so brilliant it is supposed to put out the eyes of the intellect, which is fabulous.” This gave me pause. Wouldn’t “fabulous” be the more likely vocabulary of an East Village artist in 2020 than a Roman Catholic saint born in 1910?
More than once, our stage nun says, in what appears to be a pun and might also be profound, “’Be the Change you want to see in the world’ is a kind of drag.”
Still, if “I Am Sending You The Sacred Face” struck me as a quintessential 21st century avant-garde, mixed-genre dance theater piece, it also looked like an art installation, with Gelb appearing, sometimes in triplicate, sometimes bookended by what look like holy relics. The tableaux vivants resemble traditional triptychs that would not look out of place in a Cathedral, if you don’t look too closely.
I Am Sending You The Sacred Face will be presented for free by Theater in Quarantine again at 9 p.m. on December 16 and 18
Written, composed, and recorded by Heather Christian
Directed and performed by Joshua William Gelb
Choreography and associate direction by Katie Rose McLaughlin
Drag dramaturgy: Dito van Reigersberg
Scenography: Kristen Robinson
Video design: Stivo Arnoczy
Sound design and mixing: Ada Westfall
Production manager: Justin Nestor
Stage manager: Ada Zhang
Social Media: Brian Bose