Heidi Schreck's first full-length New York production peels the hardened hide of history off a corner of life in turn-of-the-century England – the turn of the 15th century, that is. It was a time when people with delusions and hallucinations were venerated as mystics and saints (rather like now), and when mobs, egged on by the priesthood, burned religious heretics at the stake – also pretty much just like some parts of the world today.
Ms. Schreck, a well-known downtown performer, has based her script very loosely on The Book of Margery Kempe, sometimes considered the first autobiography in English. Kempe was a middle class wife and mother who ran a brewery and had a vision of Jesus around the time of the birth of her first baby. The story focuses on her inner battle to keep herself spiritually "clean" despite being a married woman. She wanted to be a saint in the way a reality show participant wants to become a celebrity, but she lived under the scrutiny of an intolerant orthodoxy that forbade women from preaching, among other strictures.
Ms. Schreck's characters speak in a colloquial, mostly naturalistic American idiom, a good choice for two reasons. First, her 600-year-old story resounds powerfully into our own times. Second, the blunt language creates an immediacy which, juxtaposed with a whiff of the supernatural, forms a close, magnetic atmosphere.
At the same time, director Leigh Silverman and set designer Rachel Hauck make effective use of the Ohio Theatre's deep, decaying-church-like space. The baby spends most of the play in a cradle suspended high above stage right, rocked via a pulley operated by the Nurse (a funny and touching Tricia Rodley). Characters enter from unexpected angles. Solid-looking tables and benches and an overall brownness evoke the deadly inflexibility of the ruling religious authorities. Candlelight and Theresa Squire's rich, rough costumes create an effectively Medieval feeling.
A blustery Darren Goldstein plays Margery's longsuffering husband John with admirable balance, measuring an old-time male sense of privilege against a genuine love – both affectionate and carnal – for his sexy wife. Jeremy Shamos and Will Rogers are respectively sympathetic and darkly funny as the cautiously heretical Father Thomas and the earnest youth Jacob, two searchers who fall into Margery's charismatic orbit. Margery herself (Sofia Jean Gomez) has a charming late scene with the wonderful Marylouise Burke, who plays the elder mystic Juliana of Norwich with equal parts holy panache and down-home friendliness, a wise old spiritualist and a sweet old coot.
But the play belongs proudly to Margery, and we left the theater feeling that we personally knew this complex and fascinating woman. Ms. Gomez gives a suitably dangerous and sometimes screamingly funny performance. Put simply, she plays the hell out of her, and with a terrifying Hell (along with Purgatory and Heaven) ever-present in the anxieties of the age, this feels like exactly the Margery we ought to have. One can read a proto-feminist strand into this lusty and freethinking depiction of the character, but any sense of anachronism is made palatable – fun, in fact – by the script's unabashed honesty. The comic dialogue and the flow from scene to scene feel effortless.
The second star of the show, besides Ms. Gomez, is the language. Ms. Schreck cleverly fuses modern talk with old topics, and old phrasing creeps in at times like words from an ancestral tongue. In one of Margery's many manic moods, toying with her husband she mimes stabbing him with her keys, then bursts out,
"I'm teasing you! Don't look at me like that. I'm going to open the pantry with these and then I'll make us Fritters. Yum! I'll take yolks of eggs, add flour and ale and stir it together till it be thick. Then I'll take pared apples, cut them thin like wafers, lay them in the batter, fry them in butter and serve them forth!"
When, charmed in spite of himself, John embraces her, she grows suddenly serious: "John. We sin too much."
The urge to be and do good versus the lustiness of the human animal – it's the same basic struggle, whether couched in centuries-old religious doctrine or modern secular morality. With a firm hand steering her characters through their struggles, Ms. Schreck transports us to a distant but not so different world. Haunted House or Tunnel of Love? The creatures lurking within can be one and the same.
Creature runs through Nov. 21 at the Ohio Theatre. For tickets please visit Theatermania or call 866-811-4111. For more information and group rates call 646-336-8077.
Photos by Jim Baldassare.