New Play Magdalene Severely Needs an Editor

The setup:

An emerging playwright, Sara Kumar, tackles the New Testament with Magdalene, told from the point of view of Mary Magdalene as she moves from debauchery to redemption.

The execution:

This is an ambitious project, with a cast of 22, and courageous, in that it presents material familiar to most Americans. To be effective, it would have to generate dramatic flair and fresh insights, or be staged so movingly that its familiarity becomes an asset. None of this happens in the current production.

Magdalene is part pageant, part narrative, but the pageantry lacks elaborate costumes and is repetitious to a fault. We see Mary Magdalene in the throes of sin so many times that it is tedious. Kumar underestimates her audience -- we get the debauchery point about an hour before the "revels" end. The debauchery consists primarily of participants rolling on the floor drunk, and Mary fighting off, or giving in to, advances; seldom has debauchery seemed less tempting.

This is a work of short scenes, many short scenes and many scene changes, and before I get to the good news, it must be mentioned that the scene changes lent a decided amateurish effect. There is a moment when the four rose-colored backdrop panels are reversed to show a rocky foreground, brown hills and a blue sky -- a pleasant effect, except that panels B and C were reversed, so that the "painting" didn't match up. And when the set was changed back to the four rose panels, they forgot to reverse panel D, though an observant actor corrected it several scenes later.

The good news, paradoxically, is that the Devil steals the show. Richard Hubscher is a ballet dancer, and, in tattered formalwear, his pantomime, sinuous movements, silent reactions and seductive mien, replete with reflective green nails, lend quality and distinction to the production. James Monaghan plays Jesus, and does well, but the costuming doesn't distinguish him from his disciples, and I wish he hadn't been compelled to join in, as the other actors did, in becoming a visible stagehand, removing props and rotating flats -- are we to be allowed no illusions?

The lead role of Mary Magdalene is a difficult one, and Briana J. Resa does not succeed in convincing us either of her allure or of her conversion. As Martha, Lyndsay Sweeney is so brisk as to seem to be in a sitcom instead of a quasi-religious pageant, and Brian Jones doesn't find the authority for Lazarus. Brandon del Castillo is effective in a minor role as a market vendor, as are Robin van Zandt as Dina, Sam Stengler as Simon, the very young Laura Hester as Miriam and Jeff Dorman as Doran.

Magdalene is directed by Stewart Hawley, and he has failed to create the acting ensemble essential to a pageant; the acting styles are all over the lot. The central flaw is the writing, as Kumar gives us narrative without drama. We see some miracles, but even these are to no great effect. This is a play badly in need of a dramaturg; it requires severe editing, and the multiple scenes need shaping to give them point. Good intentions and sincerity, here in abundance, do not necessarily make for interesting theater. Kumar's real talent may be as a producer -- she has succeeded in getting many very talented performers to share this stage.

The verdict:

This well-meaning but ponderous production lacks pace and charm.

Magdalene continues through May 20, presented by Paragon Arts and the University of St. Thomas Center for Faith and Culture, at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Dr. For information or ticketing, call 713-412-8478 or visit the ticket Web site.

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Jim Tommaney