Testament

Friday night I described the two Canoe Festival performances that evening to a friend as “six naked people, and then Mary the mother of Jesus”.  My friend laughed.

But of course that superficial description didn’t do either of the plays justice.  Body 13 had interesting things to say about sexuality, ethnicity, assumptions, and failed connections.  And Testament was a powerful one-woman show about a determined woman preserving her self and her sanity while surrounded by tragedy, personal danger, and wishful thinking and revisionism.

The story is based on Colm Tóibín’s novella The Testament of Mary, which I have not read yet but now I want to.  (I also left the theatre thinking “I want to read the book!” but I didn’t say that to anyone because I thought they might misunderstand.  I have actually read the, um, more primary source materials, just in English but in more than one translation.)   It was adapted for the stage by Guido Tondino, and this Théâtre Archéologique production is the world premiere.

The actor, Isabelle Rousseau, has a compelling controlled stillness and deliberation to her movements.  Whether she was narrating the story while sitting in a chair, or moving about the set of her house arrest / protection lighting candles while the story continued with her recorded voice playing, I focused mostly on the spoken words.  Interestingly, I found it more difficult to dismiss her or assume she was equivalent to the iconic Mary because the actor did not have long hair.  Her short haircut with bangs was one of the first reminders to hear the story fresh.

The viewpoint ascribed to her by the author and dramaturge is compelling and moving, completely consistent with the sparse written versions provided by the original unreliable narrators.   Referring to the disciples, Mary talks about “the enormity of their actions and the innocence of their belief”.  She also used a concise expression that I didn’t write down for their urge to shrink the story to a more consistent narrative of symbols – and I could see how her version wouldn’t fit with the conventional one.  For example, she tells the audience that she was not present for her son’s death and burial, because she had fled the hill fearing for her safety, and by the time that the play is set (maybe a few months later? years?) the accepted version is that she had been there for all of it.

In the play she alludes to the story of her pregnancy and the one of misplacing her son as a child, but mostly sticks to a few important scenes – the raising of Lazarus, the wedding at Cana, the arrest, the crucifixion, a vision afterwards.  Her stage business with the hammer while narrating the crucifixion was a powerful and disturbing underlining of the horror of the scene she is describing, although I may have been missing some explanation for the details of the symbolism as I was expecting her to do something more obvious (form a cross-shape, lie in the canonical posture herself, etc).

Testament has two more performances in the Canoe Festival, 9 pm on Saturday (today) and 7 pm on Sunday at C103.  Tickets are available from Workshop West or at the door.

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