Monday, July 4, 2011

Off Broadway: The Magdalene

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 historical.”

“…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 subordinate.”

“…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 me roar!”)

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