If every mother secretly believes her son is a saint, you’d have to imagine the Virgin Mary would be positively insufferable.
But she isn’t in Colm Toibin’s thrilling, idiosyncratic imagining of Mary’s life after her son’s death. The one-woman show, “The Testament of Mary,” opened Monday at the Walter Kerr Theatre starring Fiona Shaw — sharing the stage with a live vulture — and taking big bites out of the New Testament.
This is a bold work, one that portrays Mary as a critic of what will eventually emerge as Church orthodoxy. She thinks Jesus’ friends were a bad influence, doubts his divine powers and ultimately doesn’t believe his crucifixion was worth it.
“Gather together misfits, I said, and you will get recklessness, ambition, anything at all, and it will lead to what I saw, to the worst sort of catastrophe,” she says.
If you do not want to see Mary with an unlit cigarette cradling a bottle of booze while splayed out on a table, this may not be the play for you. If you don’t want your Mary naked, move along. Opening night had protesters outside the theater.
In a gentle Irish accent, Shaw is at turns mournful and at others table-flipping angry. Director Deborah Warner, a frequent Shaw collaborator, puts the actress on the constant move — nervously cleaning, rearranging furniture and even diving into a small pool onstage. This Mary is prone to menacing anger and sharp screams, suffering from simmering trauma and guilt.
In a season of one-man shows on Broadway — Bette Midler, Alan Cumming, Holland Taylor and Mike Tyson — Shaw may have one of the more controversial, rolling her eyes at apostles and dismissing them as if they were weirdoes her son met smoking funny cigarettes at Bonnaroo. She also must reveal a mother’s horrific anguish at watching the brutal death of her son. Shaw is up to the task for both, even if the production seems littered with half-baked ideas.
We meet her Mary years after the death of Jesus as she is being watched and lobbied to accept church doctrine from “my minders, my guards.” (”They want to make what happened live forever,” she mocks.) But she refuses to play along.
Mary recounts three major events — the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, Lazarus’ rising from the dead and the crucifixion, which Mary watched but fled before the end. Toibin’s text is lyrical and paranoid, offering in just 90 minutes a glimpse of a mother’s alienation from history, from, in fact, The Greatest Story Ever Told.
At Cana, her son is like a stranger, “oddly formal and grand,” who seems to perform a wine-based party trick in front of drunks. As for the risen Lazarus, Mary sees in the “miracle” just a sad, whimpering creature who can eat only bread soaked in water and shuffle sadly. She reminds us that he will have to die twice.
Often, this is a Virgin Mary as hard to pin down as the time frame, although we are told the setting is “now” in the Playbill. She switches in and out of nondescript tunics and dresses designed by Ann Roth, getting more modern as she goes until she’s in just a white T-shirt and slacks. Along the way, Shaw uses shawls and bolts of fabric to recreate the kinds of poses in which Mary has been imagined in classic paintings.
The stage that set designer Tom Pye has decorated includes a metal folding table you might find at a Target, a ladder, a few cane chairs, barbed wire, a gorgeous bush sculpted from metal, a birdcage and a stunning wooden bird pole, though the vulture that had been onstage before the curtain was nowhere to be found during one preview.
The audience is invited to wander around onstage before the show and have a close-up look at Pye’s work, including peering into a subterranean basement and at the scraps of paper Mary waves about. Shaw, meanwhile, is in a glass box murmuring before the show starts, an apparent nod to Marian statues.
But the combined effect of all this stuff is faint indeed, a playful obliqueness that seems somewhat pointless. It’s as if the creators didn’t trust Mary’s story to be riveting enough so they littered the stage with distractions.
The use of a yellow-headed vulture, named Pinhead, and Mary’s plunge into a bath are over-the-top touches. Mary also refuses to say her son’s name, a coyness that grows irritating. And an unwillingness to ground this Mary in any time or place is understandable but misses the chance to make a fully fleshed person, despite Shaw’s obvious theatrical gifts.
The mother of Jesus doesn’t smile beatifically in the solo drama “The Testament of Mary.” She scowls and rolls her eyes in exasperation. She rails. And, as if to calm her jangled nerves, she pulls cigarettes out of a pack.
Those smokes remain unlit — maybe she’s trying to quit. But, as Mary, Fiona Shaw ignites and glows with a fevered intensity and intelligence in this bold and indelibly theatrical work.
Written by Irish author Colm Toibin based on his 2012 novella, the monologue imagines a contemporary Mary grieving her son. It’s another voice recalling the greatest story ever told, but minus mystery, exaltation and any trappings.
Director Deborah Warner, who’s guided Shaw through a Tony-nominated turn in “Medea” and “Happy Days” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, cannily establishes that that’s the point even before a single word is spoken.
In a pre-show tableau, Shaw, dressed in della robbia blue and holding lilies, poses on stage as the Blessed Virgin inside a see-through cube. Like spectators in a church or museum, the audience is invited for an up-close look. People gawk at her and nearby curios — including a tethered vulture, casks and huge spikes. Yes, says an usher, it’s okay to take pictures at this point.
Then the glass box is hoisted heavenward. The next 90 minutes are about stripping away that iconic image of Mary. Dressed in drab contemporary clothes, she relates with disgust how visitors — apostles who wrote the New Testament — urge her to remember her son’s experiences in a certain way that supports his status as the Son of God. No thanks, she says. She’s got her own version of Jesus’ story — his peculiar rise and merciless execution — and she’s sticking to it. It’s less about miracles than of a band of misfits and manipulation — and her own unforgivable breach as a mother.
It’s one woman talking for an hour and a half. But Shaw, far from her big-screen turn as Petunia in “Harry Potter,” makes them gripping and dynamic with her expressive eyes and voice. She moves restlessly from chair to chair, splashes her face from a running faucet then ironically flicks her fingers in every direction as though it's holy water. She hefts a coil of barbed wire recalling a crown of thorns and a ladder suggesting the base of a cross. She eventually disrobes plunges into a small, onstage pool. Mary comes clean about where she was and why when her son dies. In the end, “The Testament of Mary” is a heavy confession — an act of contrition.
At times, the play comes close to overkill as Mary overturns everything in sight. But that’s really a minor sin. Despite a protest at an early preview by a traditional Catholic group, “The Testament of Mary” isn’t irreverent. Nor is it reverent. It is imaginative and provocative — what theater should be.
The narrator in Broadway’s “The Testament of Mary” didn’t have the easiest relationship with her late son — she can’t even bring herself to call him by his name.
He tended to ignore her and preferred hanging out with “a group of misfits, only children like himself.” After he brought back his friend Lazarus from the grave, she notes that maybe he was a bit impulsive: “The man would have to face death twice. Only sorrow could come from that.”
You’ve probably figured out by now that this woman, played by extraordinary Irish actress Fiona Shaw, is Mary. The Mary.
But Colm Tóibín’s monologue, adapted from his own 2012 novella, doesn’t give us the usual view of Jesus’ mother as a devoted, saint-like figure — even if director Deborah Warner refers directly to that image in the MoMA-style art installation that precedes the show.
For about 20 minutes before the play actually begins, theatergoers are invited to walk on the stage, where Shaw sits in a plexiglass cage. Wearing a robe, her shawl over her head, Mary clutches lilies and an apple — she’s like a Renaissance Pietà. The rest of the space looks like an archaeological site: a ladder leading down to an underground dig, empty coffee cups, a jar of honey, a tape recorder, a couple of joints on a small plate. An actual live vulture is tethered to a post — impressive, but also gratuitous.
Even silent and still, Shaw is a forceful presence. This is her show, her moment.
She and Warner are longtime accomplices, having delivered such memorable evenings as “Happy Days” and “Medea.” Here the script they’re working with isn’t nearly as remarkable — but Shaw’s charismatic, almost possessed performance is.
Few, if any, others could match her ferocious intensity, keen intelligence and dark humor. This skeptical Mary doesn’t bother to hide her contempt for her son’s cynical followers. But she also acknowledges her own failings, admitting that she could not bear to stay until the conclusion of the crucifixion.
When the character strips naked and immerses herself into some kind of well, it looks as if she’s trying to purify herself from the horror and the guilt. Toward the end, she rearranges some of the props — only those sitting in the mezzanine will see that she puts them in the shape of a large cross. Eventually, she speaks to us with her arms outstretched. The gesture evokes the divine, but it’s also touchingly human.
Just let the woman speak, for pity’s sake.
A great actress and a fine, trenchant script are struggling to assert themselves at the Walter Kerr Theater, where Colm Toibin’s “Testament of Mary” opened on Monday night. The ads for this production, directed by Deborah Warner, feature the play’s sole performer, Fiona Shaw, wearing what appears to be a crown of thorns, but as a muzzle.
The Mary whose testament we have gathered to hear is the mother of Jesus. And she wants to be allowed, for once, to tell her story on her terms, and to appear to us unencumbered by the signs and symbols that history and devotion have layered upon her.
So there’ll be no seraphim fluttering about the head of this Mary. The only winged creature we see her with is a live vulture, which appears in a prologue to the show. This is to be Mary stripped bare, the better for us to grasp the suffering reality of a woman doomed to live with the memories of a son taken from her first by fame and then by a terrible public death.
That it doesn’t quite work out that way ranks as one of the greater disappointments in a season that has made a practice of dashing hopes. Having read and admired Mr. Toibin’s book of the same title, an expansion of the script for this play, and knowing how transfixing Ms. Shaw can be, I was all set for an evening of searing, austere eloquence. It was just what I needed as a tonic after the gooier excesses of Broadway.
I was startled, then, when I first saw the stage of the Walter Kerr, which was occupied by the designer Tom Pye’s elaborate installation. That’s where the vulture I mentioned earlier perches, spreading its baleful wings. That is also where we first see Ms. Shaw, garbed like a Raphaelite Madonna and seated in a large, transparent cube, a sea of votive candles at her feet.
The audience is invited onstage to take a closer look, and to note the surrounding clutter of things new (a tape recorder, a roll of toilet paper) and old (amphoras, an open trap door that looks onto what appears to be an archaeological dig).
I joined the throng, trying not to stare at Ms. Shaw, whose mouth was shaping unheard words, and stooping to examine scrawled-upon paper, hand-rolled cigarettes and, at a distance, that intimidating vulture. Though I didn’t snap pictures of Ms. Shaw with my cellphone, as many fellow audience members did, I felt creepy and a little guilty.
This is probably as I was meant to feel, like a gawker at a sideshow. It’s a crafty coup de théâtre, this fourth-wall-breaking prologue. It suggests how people have been conditioned to see those of whom we make saints, through a glass darkly. The implicit promise here is that the glass will be broken.
Sure enough, shortly after the last of the pilgrims have returned to their seats, much of that set is dismantled. Ms. Shaw sheds her biblical raiment and steps before us in mufti, her face scrubbed raw, in a long black dress over work pants. Before the show ends, she will have taken off every last stitch of those as well. Stripped bare, indeed.
Long before that moment of confrontational nudity, you will have probably surmised that Ms. Warner is going to err on the side of literal-mindedness. She has divested the stage of one landscape of smothering iconography only to substitute another. As Mary describes the events leading up to her son’s death, she employs all sorts of heavy visual aids.
Speaking of the death and resurrection of Lazarus, she covers her face with a shroudlike cloth. When she talks about the transformation of water into wine, she hefts a large clay vessel onto a table. By the time we get to Calvary, you have a good idea of how she is going to use that long wooden ladder and those coils of barbed wire.
It is as if Ms. Warner — who collaborated with Ms. Shaw on productions of Euripides’ “Medea” and Beckett’s “Happy Days” — didn’t trust sufficiently in the power of her star and script to captivate a big Broadway audience.
Ms. Warner, of all people, should know better. The first time I ever saw Ms. Shaw was in a one-woman production of T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land,” staged by Ms. Warner in 1996 in a derelict 42nd Street theater, and I felt I was watching a cast of hundreds. And there are moments in “Testament” that demonstrate that Ms. Shaw’s abilities to command as an actress have only grown.
As written by Mr. Toibin, Mary’s account of the last years of her son’s life is remarkable in how it grounds its familiar tales in the context of the everyday, and particularly in the perspective of a mother who can’t understand what her son has become. This Mary is an ordinary woman of her day, forced against her will into a role in history she never sought or wanted.
Ms. Shaw gives us that woman, for sure. When she speaks of how memory is what fills her body now, instead of blood and bones, her eyes burn black. We feel that if we chose, we could see what she sees, but that the choice would hurt too much. Even Mary, as she says, had to look away when her son was dying; she wouldn’t have been able to survive otherwise.
But if you’re going to give us a vision of Mary as we’ve never seen her, why would you block the view? Mr. Pye’s set, lighted by Jennifer Tipton, includes moving scrims that offer glimpses of skies of changing hues, and, toward the end, a golden tree that rises from a well to annotate a description of a dream.
Ms. Shaw’s performance is similarly restless. She is forever taking out cigarettes and then not lighting them, or dragging props across the length of the stage, or putting on an assortment of shawls and jackets. All this activity undercuts more meaningful movements, like the hammering of her feet on the floor when sorrow and anger become uncontainable.
Ms. Warner and Ms. Shaw are brilliant artists; I don’t hesitate to say that. And I assume there’s method in this jitteriness. Perhaps it’s meant to conjure a woman forever trying to distract herself from, or make palpable and manageable, the pained consciousness that never leaves her.
But I was never happier — or more harrowed — than in those rare quiet, contained moments when this Mary made us feel that we were in a private tête-à-tête with a woman who had an extraordinary story to tell, and needed to keep telling it, forever and ever.
Fiona Shaw has haunted T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" in an abandoned theater on 42nd Street. In her Tony-winning embodiment of "Medea," she made an ancient story as horrifically human as the news. Along the way, the Irish-born actress also snatched a little pop-culture immortality as Harry Potter's Aunt Petunia and a head witch in "True Blood."
But even for this magnificent daredevil and her inextricable collaborator for 25 years, Deborah Warner, a revisionist modern-dress monodrama channeling the mother of Jesus might be considered perilous territory. (A Catholic group protested the first preview last month, but, thus far, not again.)
For more secular theater lovers, however, the peril comes in missing "The Testament of Mary," adapted by Colm Tóibín from his own novella. With both enormous audacity and bottomless grief, Tóibín's 90-minute stunner imagines a version of the Christ story "from the silent woman we pray to."
In a preshow, Shaw, with her long, hard bones and her wind-swept cubist face, sits calmly behind a glass case as the familiar icon. Then she reappears in a sturdy gray dress over jeans and boots, puttering around the messy furniture-strewn set as if tending a garden -- or a memory.
She complains about apostles who keep interrogating her -- preparing to "change the world." "The world?" she asks with bemused incredulity. "All of it?"
Lest we mistake her exasperation for a lack of caring, she explains the importance of a chair. "It belongs to the empty space which love once filled," she says, dropping to it on the floor to kiss it, "someone who will not return."
This is a story of an abandoned mother, whose adored young son surrounded himself with "misfits" who came to call him the son of God. She waves off the idea of his followers with a toss of her cigarette. Yes, this Mary smokes. She also gets completely undressed to dunk in a well.
She describes the crucifixion in agonizing detail, but denies she stuck around to wash his body. She ran to save herself. She comes to believe the miracles, but doesn't like them. She just wants her son back.
In the preshow, we are invited onstage to walk around her world, which distressingly includes a live vulture tied to a stand. If you see the poor thing, please, apologize for our species.
If you arrive before curtain time at the new Broadway production of Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary (* * * out of four), you can walk up on stage and through a simulated museum exhibit evoking the ordeal of the play's title, and only, character: the mother of Jesus Christ.
Prominent in it is Mary herself -- or rather Fiona Shaw, the extraordinary actress who plays her. Shaw sits immobile in a clear box, her face bearing an expression of serene warmth -- even with a live vulture poised just beside her.
Once the audience is seated, Shaw elegantly leads the bird of prey offstage -- and launches into an 85-minute monologue that thoroughly shatters the calmness of the prelude, along with any conceptions of Mary as a passive, obedient figure.
Like Toibin, who adapted Testament from his own novella, Shaw was born in Ireland in the 1950s and raised Catholic. Religion, not surprisingly, has been a source of both fascination of skepticism for both artists. When the play, which opened Monday, began previews in March, protesters gathered outside the Walter Kerr Theatre to object to what one sign described as its "blasphemous" nature.
Certainly, Toibin's Queen of Heaven, whom we meet years after Jesus has been crucified, is capable of acerbic irreverence. She refers early on to two regular visitors, presumably apostles, who watch and question her, and "the brutality boiling in their blood." She tells us sardonically of the "group of misfits" that her son "gathered around him," and her impatience with them.
But Shaw's characteristically textured delivery also shows us Mary's struggle not to seem embittered; and Toibin has her remember Jesus with a great tenderness that is extended to others, notably Lazarus, whose story is retold with particular poignance. The most duplicitous character, a false confidante named Marcus, is fictional.
What emerges is a portrait of a loving mother with a strong, sharp mind and a broken heart. Under the vigorous direction of her longtime collaborator Deborah Warner, Shaw gives full force to Toibin's imagining -- clearly not meant to be any stab at literal history -- of a woman driven as much by her desire for justice and sympathy for others as by grief or fury.
The fury, it should be noted, never accommodates the magnificent ferocity that Shaw and Warner brought to a very different mother's tale in their Medea. For all its eloquence and emotional range, in fact, Toibin's play lacks a certain dramatic dynamism; it's actually more compelling to read than to watch, even in the hands of so formidable a leading lady.
Still, for anyone who's curious about its subject -- believers and non-believers alike -- Testament offers an intriguing, and deeply compassionate, account.
Where to begin? Well, there’s a live vulture on stage, and an uprooted tree suspended in mid-air, and a pool of water that appears to be bottomless. And that’s before the house lights even go down on “The Testament of Mary.” The matchless Fiona Shaw commands the stage in this solo piece adapted by Irish scribe Colm Toibin from the 2012 novella he fashioned as an interior monologue delivered by Mary, the mother of the historical Christ and, in Christian legend, the Mother of God and the Queen of Heaven. It’s safe to say you’ve never seen anything like it.
Helmer Deborah Warner, a first-hand creative collaborator on this hugely imaginative work, succinctly conveys the point of it in a single powerful image. Before the play begins, she has positioned Shaw inside a Plexiglas cube, sitting in a classic pose of the Blessed Virgin familiar from countless religious paintings and church statuary. Clad in Mary’s traditional blue cloak, she holds a single stalk of lilies to signify her purity and is encircled by lighted votive candles — a beloved but distant image of worship.
Moments later, when Shaw appears in character — a tall, lean figure with burning eyes — Mary has been stripped off all those iconic symbols. The celestial blue cape is gone, as are the candles, the lilies and all trappings of religious veneration. As the mother of a son whose name she can’t bring herself to speak aloud, this Mary is no saint but a grieving mother who has clung to her sorrow for years, for decades, possibly for generations, down to the present day.
The premise of the play is that Mary is the silent woman of the New Testament. Generations of religious art may have led us to think we know her, but she actually has very little to say for herself in the Gospels. Not until now, when she has finally been cornered by John the apostle, who wants her testimony for his Gospel.
Toibin, a literary heavyweight admired for his emotional depth and spare, elegant style, has said that he wrote this piece to give voice to “a woman’s anger, her power, her politics, her wit.” His intention was to restore to solid flesh and blood “a woman who was human and mortal” before she became a religious icon.
Warner honors the scribe’s intention with what appears to be her single piece of direction: play it human. That’s exactly what Shaw’s soul-baring perf delivers — a mother whose grief at the loss of her child is singularly human, but also so timeless and universal, it seems to contain the rage, the fury and the suffering of every mother who ever lost a child.
The tremendous tension within the monologue is Mary’s terrible conflict about returning to the past and re-living the excruciating pain of her memories. Shaw first attacks the conflict on a physical level, prowling her modest house and slamming around the household props as if she were confined to a cage from which there’s no escape. Although it’s not always clear how some of these items relate to the subject at hand, it’s thrilling to watch Shaw throwing things around.
“I remember everything,” she says ominously, in a tone of such misery that Shaw seems to be holding onto her sanity by a thread. Remembering is one thing, but opening herself up to those memories is a treacherous business. And once Mary brings herself to speak the word “crucified” — Shaw’s face a landscape of pain and grief — the images come flooding out.
Mary is such an original character and Shaw such a master at the art of creative shock, that in the process of delivering her testimony, one traditional legend after another is smashed to bits.
Those blessed Apostles? ”A band of misfits,” in Mary’s furious condemnation of these hot-headed young “fools and malcontents,” so carried away by the high drama of proclaiming their leader the “King of the Jews” and “Son of God” that they deliver her son to his executioners.
The great miracles of her son’s career? “I want no more miracles,” she says, questioning the unnatural act of raising Lazarus from the dead and mocking the wedding in Cana for its excessive consumption.
But Mary directs the full force of her fury toward the crucifixion itself. No, her son didn’t bear his excruciating ordeal in silence. He screamed and howled and moaned like a tortured animal. And as for that myth that he rose from the dead after three days — well, let’s not examine that one too closely.
As hard as Mary is on the players in this cruel drama, she’s even more unforgiving of her own role in it. Which is why the most searing images in this monologue are the ones that she alone can see.