Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Testament of Mary @ Mamaí Theatre

Anne McEvoy in "The Testament of Mary"
Some twenty years ago my partner and I went to see Annie Sprinkle give a lecture at Cleveland Public Theater. Once a sex worker and performer in pornography, Sprinkle had by this time earned a doctorate in human sexuality and had moved into education and sex-positive advocacy.

It was a full house that night, and as we streamed into the theater there was this one woman standing outside, entirely on her own, protesting the event. She had a sign and she was expressing her disapproval. I cannot recall what was written on the sign, nor exactly what her point of view was.

There are several arguments against pornography. The puritanical is perhaps the first that comes to mind, that performing sex acts on film or video for the enjoyment of others is wrong, improper, it is degenerate.

There are also more relevant arguments against pornography and more specifically the porn industry, which preys upon women, especially very young women, and can even participate in human trafficking.

If I remember correctly, this protester was against that evening’s event because sex work is generally anti-woman, that it defines women, the entire gender, as simply something to be fucked. A sound, feminist, anti-porn argument.

As the audience entered, we just kind of ignored her. But her presence impressed me. Whether I agreed with her or not, she was taking a stand for what she believed, all by herself. She wasn’t grandstanding, she wasn’t aggressively attempting to shame anyone. She was obviously outnumbered by the crowd and she had no support. She was just making her point, outside, in the cold.

We don’t protest theater in Cleveland. Not much. Too polite, perhaps. Or maybe it’s because no one cares or worse, that the vast majority of people in greater Cleveland who might be offended are entirely unaware of what happens in the theater scene.

Photo: Steve Wagner
Last spring, Talespinner produced my play Red Onion, White Garlic, and when it was announced that this Indonesian folktale would be performed by women in hijab (87% of the people in Indonesia today identify as Muslim) I was thrilled, and also concerned. We are a polarized country. Our president has expressed a general contempt for Islam. Would someone make trouble?

No one made trouble. Please. How would the racist dingbats of Northeast Ohio even know this were happening?

But recent events have made live theater an occasional lightning rod for controversy. Following a performance of Hamilton, attended by Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, the cast gave a curtain call speech as the man exited the hall. The outrage that followed in the media was scattershot; is it appropriate to lecture a captive audience following a play, shouldn’t they show more respect to the Vice President-Elect, must everything be about politics?

This was at Hamilton. You get it.

This summer the Public Theatre made headlines again -- this time with Shakespeare if you can believe that -- by presenting a modern dress production of Julius Caesar as one of their two, free productions at the Delacorte in Central Park.

Shortly after the election, The Public's Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, decided to cast Caesar in the form of Donald J. Trump. This textually justifiable interpretation of Shakespeare’s version of Caesar as a proud, preening, feckless, needy, physically weak, power-hungry windbag would be on full display in the form of the actual sitting president, and in the president’s own city.

It would also mean depicting him murdered in the Senate, every single night.

Photo: Inside Edition
Even the discussion of the assassination of a sitting president is repellent to me. I don’t even joke about it, and I’ll joke about anything. First, I am an avowed pacifist. Then, the violent overthrow of a democratically elected figure is the diametric opposite of democracy. One individual or small number of people conspiring to violently undo the decision of the vast majority, it is anathema to the values upon which this nation was based.

This is, in fact, a dominant theme of the play Julius Caesar. Brutus is torn between his belief in the ideals of a democratic Republic against his deep love of his comrade Caesar. But the people want to make Caesar their emperor, their king, it’s what the people of Rome, for good or ill, have decided they want.

In murdering Caesar, Brutus utterly failed to teach the citizens of Rome that it was necessary to slay a potential tyrant. (Ironically, J.W. Booth also failed in this regard, and as an interpreter of Shakespeare he really should have known better.) Brutus's name was disgraced and eventually he threw himself on his own sword rather than surrender to a man  -- Octavius, later called Augustus Caesar -- who would soon become to first true emperor of Rome, regardless of Brutus’ sacrifice.

But your average Trump-supporting troglodyte wouldn’t know that. They couldn’t be bothered to watch this production, any production of Julius Caesar, let alone read it. They just saw the stabbing murder of a version of Caesar dressed like Donald Trump on a continuous loop on Fox News and on Breitbart. No other part of the play, just that one moment.

None of these people would have even cared about the production if they hadn’t been told to care about it by the people who tell him to think things on TV and on the internet. The production had been playing for weeks before the uproar began, and it was only through the final weekend of performances that protests took place in the form of Trump sympathizers interrupting the performance and storming the stage (death threats to Eustis and his family at his home came later) which created a heightened sense of expectation, wonder, and worry at those final shows.

After all, in Shakespeare’s day, when Caesar, and later Brutus then Marc Antony, make their speeches to the actual audience, certain members of  the audience called lines back to the stage, rehearsed lines. There we undoubtably audience plants at the Globe, and so it was this summer at the Public. How was an audience member to know if the person getting riled up next to them was an actor, a protester, or perhaps a domestic terrorist?

Last weekend I brought my mom to see The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, directed by Bernadette Clemens and produced by Mamaí Theatre at the Helen Theatre in Playhouse Square. Tóibín created a stir when he wrote the novel, a brief exploration of Mary, mother of Jesus, as a troubled, conflicted single parent to a religious zealot in a dangerous time. Adapted for the stage in a ninety-minute solo performance, she tells the audience directly of experiences at once familiar but seen from a fresh perspective; from a person who sees only disaster in what is to come, and from an intensely personal point of view.

Photo: America Needs Fatima
On Friday, July 8 a peaceful protest was staged on Euclid Avenue, sponsored by the Media Research Center, an arch-conservative lobbying organization whose founder, L. Brent Bozell once referred to President Obama as a “skinny ghetto crackhead.” They provided flyers decrying the depiction of “Holy Mary” for her “bubbling with contempt for her Son’s demented followers,” that she “threatens the writers of the Gospels with a knife,” and that for a time she “lives as a bandit, stealing to survive.”

These allegations are true, as are all the others cherry-picked and presented out of context from this compelling narrative. Anne McEvoy, one of our most talented performers and a good friend, imbues her character with pathos, and also the deep, painful wisdom of a mother and woman who has lived so long and seen so much. It is a passionate and moving performance.

Sitting in the house, however -- with my own mother sitting next to me -- I was keenly aware of the others in the audience around me. That one protest had taken place the week before. This Friday evening there were few people downtown anyway, a sleepy summer evening in Cleveland. There were no security offers checking bags or purses. I wondered how many attended as a direct result of the protests. I have to admit, it motivated me to get a ticket.

But what if one of those in attendance had ill-intent? To interrupt the performance, or worse? These things happen today.

I am not a person of faith, and am accustomed to seeing things from a variety of points of view. I guess that’s relativism. If a person of faith cannot glean insight from a reinterpretation of their beliefs without flying into a rage, they need to breathe, to begin again, and to reconsider the foundation of their faith.

Mamaí Theatre presents "The Testament of Mary" at the Helen in Playhouse Square through July 23, 2017

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