In a “Production Note” in the play’s program, the producers of The Magdalene: A Musical Play Inspired by the Gospels of Mary and Thomas, now playing at The Theater at St. Clement’s, readily admit that “Christian and Jewish scholars who have seen this production of ‘The Magdalene’ have raised concerns that it includes classic anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish images…” They go on to write that “We take these concerns very seriously and are working to address them.” And by way of explanation (or shall I say expiation?), they add that:
“…the depiction of
Judaism [in the play] as forbidding women to learn and to teach is not
“…Jews regarded God
not as a frightening, vengeful tyrant but as a loving father….”
“…the relationship between Pontius Pilate and the High
Priest (Annas) is ambiguously portrayed in the play. In fact, according to Biblical historians,
Pilate was a bloodthirsty Roman occupier of Judea, and the High Priest was his
“…Yeshua [Jesus] was born, lived, and died as a Jew faithful
to the Law of Moses.”
All well and good and the producers are to be commended for
including these remarks in the play’s program.
But it is scarcely enough and their sanctimonious commentary is not
convincing once one sees the play itself.
For despite their apparent misgivings and assurances that they “are
currently in the process of considering, in consultation with Christian and
Jewish experts, various proposed revisions to the book and lyrics and changes
to the portrayal of the Jewish characters,” it does not appear to be the case
that any such modifications as yet have been made.
On its face, this remains an offensively anti-Semitic play
and, for that matter (although the producers don’t address this in their “Note”)
an overtly anti-Catholic one as well. I
am willing to accept the producers’ assurances that that was not their original
intention but their avowed commitment to correct the situation rings hollow in
my ears in light of the fact that there is no evidence that any real action
appears to have been taken. Simply “considering,
in consultation with Christian and Jewish experts, various proposed revisions”
just doesn’t cut it.
Setting aside the issues of anti-Semitism and
anti-Catholicism, what is one to make of the play as a theatrical
production? (Other than that, Mrs.
Lincoln, what did you think of the play?)
Sadly, even on that score, there’s not much to commend it. The inspirations for the play were the
intriguing Gnostic Gospels of Mary and Thomas, with their suggestions that Mary
Magdalene was not the repentant prostitute she had been made out to be in the
Biblical Gospels, that she was one of Jesus’ Apostles (indeed, that she was
first among them and the one he loved the most), that she was Jesus’ lover and
perhaps his wife, and that she bore his child. That would seem to provide lots of raw
material for a satisfying play – or novel, for that matter – and, in the hands
of a talented writer, it does. Working
with much the same original material, Dan Brown produced “The Da Vinci Code,”
no work of literary genius to be sure, but a thrilling pot-boiler of a novel
that kept the reader on the edge of his seat, nonetheless.
Here, however, similar source material inspired nothing more
than a somewhat disjointed, occasionally incoherent, and generally soporific
musical. I wasn’t perched on the edge of
my seat eager to discover what would happen next; rather, I was struggling to
keep awake. The book was slow and dull
and the song lyrics forgettable. The
actors were energetic and did the best they could with the material they were
given but were given too little to work with to possibly succeed. And at least one actor – Eugene Barry-Hill as
Pontius Pilate – was so badly miscast, that he should have grounds to sue. Barry-Hill is a talented actor in appropriate
roles but the role he was given here wasn’t one of them.
So is there nothing positive to be said about this
production? Well, yes, I can think of
two things. First, I thought the musical
score by James Olm was pretty good.
And second, I was quite impressed by the singing talent of Lindsie Van
Winkle who starred in the title role of Mary Magdalene. She has a rich, powerful voice and belted out
number after number to my satisfaction (although she did go a little over the
top with her final rendition of “Mary, The Magdalene” in which the play’s
feminist sensibilities appeared to get the better of her and in which I
half-expected to hear her proclaim, a la Helen Reddy, “I am Mary Magdalene, hear