The Book of Magdalene Offers a New Take on an Old Saint

Jennifer Wang as Len and Mariam Albishah as Ru in The Book of Magdalene.
Jennifer Wang as Len and Mariam Albishah as Ru in The Book of Magdalene. Photo by RicOrnelProductions

The biblical, and now sainted, Mary of Magdala has sloughed through quite a journey during the last two thousand years. As a beloved disciple of Christ, she helped bankroll his ministry, saw him crucified, buried, and was the first person to witness his resurrection. When the patriarchy of the church fathers thought threatened, she was ceremoniously rebooted into a vision of repentant whore.

Pope Gregory the Great, now also a saint, did that to her in a series of homilies in 591 A.D. when he shoehorned all the references to any of the “sinful women” who had fleeting association to Jesus – the adulteress dragged before Christ for his judgment, the woman with the “bad name” who anointed his feet with oil and dried them with her hair – into the Mary Magdalene we know today. To this day she remains sinful but blessed.

In the world premiere The Book of Magdalene, streaming currently at Main Street Theater, playwright Caridad Svich plays a jazzy riff on Mary's sullied reputation and journey into repentance.

Written with one gimlet eye firmly fixed on our current predicament, the staging, filmed at Main Street, reflects the pandemic's ubiquitous effect. Masks are worn when characters are not socially distanced, and there's a large corrugated plexiglas screen which separates the two former lovers. Except for the masks, this physical blocking works exceedingly well for Book, since our protagonist Len (Jennifer Wang), a rather nonchalant sex phone worker, is herself distanced from all around her. She's called a “lone bird” numerous times.

Set in a dystopian future where people are afraid to step outdoors, Len cares for Elder (Maria Schenck), a sly all-knowing earth mother, replete with homilies of her own. Their prickly, yet all too human, relationship defines the play. In her thick woolen overlay, Ms. Schenck walks away with the show, a daffy combo of the ultimate Jewish stage mother and a sweet abuela. She knows things she couldn't possibly know about Len, she kvetches and makes pronouncements about the problems of the world, and she talks to cicadas. In a nod toward magic realism, a giant one, luminous and lit from within, appears from under her chair and stares at her before scratching her hand with its feeler. It's a delightful surprise, whose meaning alludes me.

Girlfriend Ru (Mariam Albishah, fresh and earthy) is leaving town but Len won't go with her. She's lost and alone and prefers that distance. At work, with headsets dangling around her chair, she chats to Suit (Pablo Bracho, wearing an off-putting Joker-type mask), who's threatening to cut himself. He's as lonely as Len, but she keeps her distance, cold and dispassionate. Her work name is Magdalene. Later at church, Priest (Andrea Boronell) delves into Mary's history and ties her to Len. “Some of us are seen as sinners,” Len says wearily. “Jesus saw through her...he got her,” the priest comforts. Set in an archway of lights (heavenly lit by Grey Starbird, with bold provocative sets by Afsaneh Aayani), the scene disquiets but comforts, also. Len, you see, has been touched by Suit. He has got to her.

On her pathway to reclamation, she meets The Reveler (Albishah again), dressed as some outcast from a not-very-good Pippin production. She wears a tattered coat of many colors, spangled red shorts, a battered top hat, and thigh-high red leather boots. She's certainly a sight as she tempts Len into the “new tomorrow.” But the scene is hazily written, and therefore too obvious or not obvious enough. I couldn't tell. Like the giant cicada puppet, the Reveler looks great but reads poorly.

Len will find a kind of redemption through her acknowledgment of empathy to others. She gives up her job, a bit of her drinking, and appears bare-armed for the first time. Usually she wears a shawl over her head, like a medieval icon and draped as a saintly statue. (Throughout, the costumes by Victoria Nicolette Gist are tasty and masterful.) “Hope is easy to say, not easy to do,” winks wise Elder. Len has found the first steps into “the first ache of morning light.”

Svich's drama, though placed in the future, echoes from earlier times – the downtown avant-garde world of off-Broadway. She knows this territory well, winning an Obie in 2012 for Lifetime Achievement. She is equally regarded and awarded for her translations of Lorca, Calderon, and Lope de Vega. Her fragrant adaptation of Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits played in an equally fragrant Main Street production in 2009.

She's an evocative writer, sprinkling poetry through her dialogue in savory doses. The night is “lacquered,” birds fly “as far as the eye.” With smooth direction by Amelia Rico and the visually arresting video production team Ricornel, along with the soft stoicism from Maria Schenck's Elder, The Book of Magdalene, if not quite mesmerizing, is certainly of this time. The woman from Magdala has found another homily.

The Book of Magdalene. Online viewing will be available through February 21. Purchase your tickets by 4 p.m. to receive your viewing code by 5 p.m. the same day. Your 48-hour watch period begins after entering your access code. For more information visit Pay what you can $20-$54.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover