The story told in Emma Horwitz’s “Mary Gets Hers,” about an orphan girl who falls into prostitution, and then is rescued from it, follows nearly scene by scene a tenth century play written by Hrotsvitha. The difference is that Hrotsvitha, a German canoness who wrote in Latin, intended “Abraham, or Fall and Redemption of Mary” to glorify Christian virtue and the power of divine forgiveness, while Horwitz, a queer Jewish woman writing eleven centuries later, wants her adaptation to get laughs.
I’ll confess it was mostly other theatergoers who laughed at the performance I attended of “Mary Gets Hers, ” but I did find the script pointed and witty, and the use of an all-female cast clever, and that itself was a kind of redemption.
The production begins when Mary (Haley Wong) slips through the curtain onto the stage giving us a coquettish look before two pair of shoes drop heavily from the ceiling. “My parents just died,” she explains, just as coquettishly. A hermit named Abraham (Susannah Perkins) who has come searching for her father finds her alone. Later, he explains to fellow hermit Ephraim (Octavia Chavez-Richmond) his plans for Mary:
Abraham: I was worried someone might take her
Abraham: and ruin her
Abraham: So I took her
Abraham: to protect her
from whoever might ruin her…
Abraham asks Ephraim for help with his scheme.
Abraham: My scheme to convince this poor orphan girl to get betrothed to God so she may live peacefully in my cell for the rest of her days under His warm love and protection.
That we don’t learn until near the end of the play that Abraham is Mary’s uncle helps give such scenes a comically salacious edge. The use of the non-male actors helps underscore the hypocrisy of the male characters in this scene and many to follow.
Mary, locked in Abraham’s cell for years, gets bored, which makes her open to seduction by the Master of the Inn (Claire Siebers) who puts her up in his inn, where she is visited a parade of “lovers” who tell her they love her, while she just wants to talk about how she is decorating the room. Abraham sends a soldier (Kai Heath) to find Mary, which he does eventually, and Abraham follows up by going to the inn in disguise – and because he is in disguise, ravenously gorging on the meat and wine at the inn, even though as a hermit he’s supposed to abstain from both . “I ate meat for you,” he says to Mary when he reveals himself, as if having made a great sacrifice.
These scenes would surely have felt funnier to me if not for the emphatically broad acting – mugging, wiggling, winking. From the get-go, this often struck me not so much as inappropriate, but distracting from the wit in the script. This directorial choice baffled me until I figured out what might be going on. Horwitz has written that she believes that Hrotsvitha likely lived in an abbey with other young aristocratic women and imagines that she not only wrote her plays for these women but that they performed the plays for each other. Thus, perhaps the cast of professional actors was being directed to portray this group of young nuns as being out of their depth while putting on this play; out to have a good time.
“Mary Gets Hers” is clearly helmed by a clever creative team – and even an erudite one. Hrotsvithais is said to have been inspired by the sexy comedies by the pre-Christian Roman playwright Terence, replacing their bawdy tone with one of moral instruction. By replacing it back, Horwitz and director Josiah Davis have thus arguably created what one might call a new kind of restoration comedy.
Mary Gets Hers
Playwrights Realm at Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space through October 14
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
Written by Emma Horwitz
Directed by Josiah Davis
Set designer: You-Shin Chen, costume designer: Camilla Dely, lighting designer: Cha See, sound designer and Additional Music: Kathy Ruvuna
Cast: Octavia Chavez-Richmond as Ephraim, Kai Heath as the soldier, Susannah Perkins as Abraham, Claire Siebers as Master of the Inn and others, Haley Wong as Mary