Having read that the audience was invited on stage before the start of The Testament of Mary to gaze upon an assortment of props, as well as the leading lady Fiona Shaw, I brought my camera to document the event. I figured it would make for perfect art to accompany a blog post about the wisdom of a show exploiting audience curiosity in order to seed a social media marketing campaign.
Instead, I was converted.
No, not like that.
In the 36 hours since I saw the next-to-last Broadway performance, I have come to realize that the audience ambling and photobombing of Shaw was in fact an integral part of the show, and it reveals new layers to me even as I write.
Colm Toíbín’s revisionist view of the mother of Jesus, adapted by Shaw and director Deborah Warner, gave us a most ordinary Mary, who spent much of the show in a drab tunic and pants. She was remarkably modern in her speech, talked with an Irish accent, and dangled a cigarette from her lips. The set was strewn with anachronistic props: plastic chairs, a metal pail, a bird cage – a yard sale filled mostly with items from the Bethlehem Hope Depot.
Mary’s tale might be that of any Jewish mother whose son has fallen in with the wrong crowd, less disciples or worshippers than hooligans; her skepticism about her son’s miracles is hardly veiled. She spoke of the raising of Lazarus as if he had been buried alive, of the transformation of water into wine as a show-off’s trick, and wrenchingly of the crucifixion. She described those who urged her to recount her son’s life and death in specific ways, contrary to some of her own recollections; she talked about potential threats to her own safety resulting from her familial connection. She stripped bare and submerged herself completely in a pool of water for a second or two longer than might seem safe; an auto-baptism perhaps?
But that’s the play. Or so we’re meant to think.
In hindsight, the play – or at least the production – began the moment Fiona Shaw took her place, Madonna-like, behind plexiglass walls, at roughly 7:40 pm before the announced 8 pm curtain. While it’s perhaps unfortunate that this device was used so soon after the Tilda Swinton-in-a-box stunt at the Museum of Modern Art, we were clearly watching a tableau vivant of the Virgin Mary as seen in countless religious icons, not an Oscar winner feigning sleep.
The moment the play proper, or perhaps I should say “the action,” began, the audience was shooed to their seats, cautioned against further photos, the glass case lifted, and Shaw quickly shed the fine vestments for the costume described earlier.
As I had stood among the crowd on stage, and it was indeed a crowd, I thought, ‘Why isn’t this better managed? Everyone is going in a different direction. People could trip, people could slip off the stage itself, they could taunt the live vulture, they could foul up the preset props.’ Even after I wormed my way up to the plexiglass and was ready to retake my seat, I couldn’t, such was the flow of people coming and going from two small stairways on a suddenly tiny stage.
I have come to realize that we were the modern day rabble, gawking at the remnants of Jesus’ death. There was no corpse, but the barbed wire we tiptoed around would later be a crown of thorns, Shaw as the Madonna was indeed a gazed-upon icon, making her transformation to flesh and blood all the more striking minutes later. We weren’t looking upon any of this with reverence, but with the avid curiosity of onlookers at a tragedy. Our actions were the curtain raiser, we were our own cast in a sequence of immersive theatre within the confines of a proscenium theatre. The vulture was gone after this prologue, since we had picked the bones of the production dry under our eager gaze; Mary was vividly alive, and therefore of no interest to a animal that feeds on carrion.
Yes, I tweeted photos of the motionless Shaw; I imagine others did the same. I tried to get a good shot of the vulture, but it wasn’t much for posing and its black feathers in low light made it even more difficult a subject. I wasn’t about to use a flash, lest it trouble the seemingly imperturbable bird; others had no such compunction.
I have seen many coups de théâtre in my years of theatergoing, but this was the first time I had been a part of one. Even my tweeting served the piece; I was spreading the classic image of Mary to others, tipping them to the ability to photograph her themselves, in order to have their own actions questioned and subverted for the subsequent 90 minutes. As I did it, I felt there was something cheap in my actions; only in hindsight do I realize that Shaw and Warner had expertly suckered me into their game, as the modern day equivalent of a gawking bystander in ancient times.
Unfortunately, only another 1,000 people may have had the opportunity to respond to my small, complicit role as I exploited images of the show on social media, in the public relations of religious and theatrical iconography, since The Testament of Mary closed after its next performance. Perhaps it ran too short a time to become the stuff of legend, but it was, for me, a memorable experience, one martyred by what Broadway seems to demand. I hope it goes to countless better places.
all photos by Howard Sherman