The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The long goodbye

Pa-paw & Grandmother
Easter 5C

In the name of God.  Amen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather this week.  Pa-paw, we called him.  Not to be confused with Paw-paw on my mother’s side.  Pa-paw was my paternal grandfather.

He was a real character.  He had a pretty hard life.  He was born among the youngest of his nine siblings - there were five boys and five girls - all of the girls had been named after flowers.  Honestly, in this moment, I don’t even quite remember most of their real names - just about everyone in the family had nicknames - most memorably, “Uncle Brother,” the oldest among the boys.

While Pa-paw was still a young boy, his mother died, and his father never quite recovered from that grief.  For most of his youth in the 1920s and 30s, Pa-paw was raised by others, away from the family home.  Often he lived with his older sisters’ families, but for a time he even lived with an African American family in town who took pity on him and his younger brother, “Uncle Babe” - no small scandal, as you might imagine, in rural Louisiana in the 1920s.

When he was a young man, like most young men of his generation, he went away to fight in the Second World War.  He spent quite a lot of time in the South Pacific, until suffering a serious injury and returning home.  But he never liked to talk about it.  Even when presented with direct questions, (being the precocious child that I was, I could always be relied upon for direct questions on uncomfortable subjects), even then, he would evade the subject.  It was just a little too hard.

Throughout his adult life, Pa-paw was always trying to be an entrepreneur.  But he was never really successful at it, because he was a little too good-hearted and forgiving for the high finance world of mid-century Central Louisiana.  He was constantly providing goods and services without collecting the agreed upon payment, or forgiving debts, or investing a little too heavily with his heart, and, perhaps, not enough with his mind.

But even so, he left his mark.  He founded the cemetery in the little town where he and grandmother lived and raised our family.  He left behind a beautiful home and a family that still carries many of his traits - the good and the, well, less good.  He had instilled in us a deep sense of spirituality and faith.  He passed on to us his love of making music.  He gave us all a deep commitment to family and community - even in those times when that commitment might step in the way of the kinds of things the world might ask of us now and then.

He wasn’t a perfect man, but he was a good man.  His life may not have been the most successful according to the measures of the world, but it was a life well lived, nonetheless.

When Pa-paw died, he had Alzheimer’s disease - “The Long Goodbye”, as it’s often called.

I still remember my last lucid conversation with him.  His disease had been progressing, but he still had some good days.  In many ways, it may have been the hardest part of the disease for him, because he could still feel himself slipping away.

On the day of that last conversation, I had been staying with Grandmother and Pa-paw - so it must have been during the summer.  One of the things that happened for us grandkids when we stayed there was, we took walks with Pa-paw.  We might wander down to the pond in front of their house to feed the ducks, or to the “Haunted House” in the woods out back, or even just down the highway to the cemetery.  But we took these one-on-one walks with Pa-paw, and we told him about our lives and learned about our shared history.  It was the time when he made each of us feel special.

On our last walk, when I was in about the fourth or fifth grade, Pa-paw clearly had an agenda.  As we walked along the gravel road behind his house, he wanted to talk with me about his disease.  He knew he was in the midst of his own “long goodbye”, and he wanted to make sure it was a good goodbye.

He told me that he was sick.  I told him that, yes, I knew.  And he told me a little more about what that meant.  He told me that things would soon be different - that he was having trouble remembering things.  Not just little things, but big things - things that he loved and that meant a lot to him.  He warned me that sometime soon, he might not even remember me.  But he assured me that it wasn’t about me, it was just this disease that was somehow separating him from himself.  And he assured me that no matter what the future would hold - no matter how hard it might be - that he would love me.

He let me ask him all of my probing little precocious child questions, and he answered every one of them as honestly as he could.  I realize now how hard that must have been for him.  I realize now that we were saying goodbye, and he wanted give me everything I needed to make it good.

After every question was asked and answered, we stopped, he looked at me, and he gave me his parting advice.  He made me promise that I’d remember where I had come from.  He made me promise to remember how important our family is.  And finally, he made me promise that whatever might happen, that I would remember that he loved me.

I made those promises to him, and with that, the light went off.

We turned toward home, and it was as if he couldn’t even remember how to walk.  He stumbled along, barely lifting his feet, but somehow almost in a run.  After making it just a few feet, he stumbled more than he could step and fell to the ground, bloodied and weeping.

I ran back to the house to get help from Grandmother, and I would never see him lucid again.  He did have a few more “good days” after that, but that was my last one.

Today, as we draw nearer to the Feast of the Ascension just over a week away, and into the waning days of our Easter celebration, the stories of Jesus move into a kind of “long goodbye”.

We hear again the story of Maundy Thursday.  In the gospel structure, it’s the setup for what they call the “Farewell Discourses” in John: three chapters’ worth of Jesus’ “long goodbye” to the disciples.

At his last supper, Jesus gives his friends the new commandment, that they love one another.  But before that, he says his goodbyes.  He does his best to explain things to them, even though they couldn’t really understand.  Even so he tries: to the ones who had been following him these years he says, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.  You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews, so now I saw to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’”

How hard it must have been for him to say goodbye.

How disconcerting it must have been for them to hear it.

We don’t always get goodbyes in the relationships in our lives.  When we do, they can be painful, but they can also be helpful.

Pa-paw gave me his parting commandment: “Remember where you’ve come from, remember how important this family is, and remember that I love you.”

It wasn’t that far from the new commandment of Jesus: “Love one another.  Just as I have love you, you should also love one another.”

Saying goodbye is hard, but when someone has really touched your life, it’s never really goodbye.

Pa-paw lives on in me - and in his children and in my cousins.  Even in my nephews who never knew him.  He lives on in the values he instilled.  In the love that he shared.  Even in the weaknesses that he struggled to overcome.

And Christ lives on in this church.  Even when we struggle to be the church that he left for us, Christ lives on in the love that still lives in Jesus’ name.  Christ lives on in our aspiration.  Christ lives in that new commandment - that we love even as we are loved.

The goodbye may be long, but even at the grave we make our song.  Because in Christ, goodbye is never the last word.  Alleluia!  Amen.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

FCS: Macbeth

Quick facts:
  • Show: Macbeth
  • Broadway
  • Date: Friday, April 26, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: July 14, 2013
  • Venue: Ethel Barrymore Theatre
  • Running time: 1:45 (no intermission)
  • My seat: Not ideal.  Rear mezzanine, stage right.  My view was unobstructed, but it was a bit too far away, despite the relatively small house.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: Chris Kipiniak in for Brendan Titley
Synopsis: Alan Cumming's nearly one-man interpretation of the classic play, as previously produced by the National Theatre of Scotland.  Set today, in a mental hospital.  Cumming's character is the patient.

My thoughts: I don't really know where to begin.

As an experience of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, the production didn't really reach me.

But as an exploration of debilitating, and perhaps even criminal mental illness, there was something there.

I've interacted with Macbeth for basically my whole life.  Some of my earliest memories are of my father reading it (along with others of Shakespeare's works) to me as I sat on his lap (yes, I had a weird childhood.  But that's how it was).  Though I haven't really encountered it much in many years.  Even so, there were lines that stood out for me - things that I remember hearing in my father's voice, and comparing it to how I heard it tonight through Mr. Cumming's voice.

So while I've had some exposure to the play, even so, I wouldn't consider myself particularly strong on the subject.

But despite the exposure I have had, and despite even the sense of familiarity I felt from time to time; I still very often found it hard to follow.  It was an ongoing chore to differentiate the characters - as well it probably should have been.  A one-man interpretation of Macbeth is a monumental undertaking, but it wasn't the best way to experience it.

The experience, however, seemed less about Shakespeare's work and more about Alan Cumming's work.

And his work was masterful.

Macbeth, in this interpretation, was less about Macbeth, and more simply the medium through which we could experience the unnamed character living his own madness through its words and emotions.  There were fleeting moments of tinted clarity, but mostly it was inner turmoil, played out through another's words.

As turbulent as the institutionalized man's inner character was, the production was equally (and balancingly) crisp.  The set was a cool, foamy green tile, interspersed with dingy whites.  The lights - mostly soft whites - fell in fuzzy-edged pools within pools in various places and scenes.  There were no hard lines, with the clear exceptions being the portals to the world outside this sequestered place.  The doctor and orderly attending to the patient could view him from a rectangular glass enclosure high above the room.  When they entered and exited, the locked door would open shining hard, sharp lines into the cold and rigid softness of the patient's room.

There was something really evocative about the production, but I still can't quite put my finger on it.  It was sexy and frightening.  It was uncomfortable, but sometimes amusing and always jarring.  There was something going on that we were never quite allowed into.

But all of that said, it was truly original and creative.  This Macbeth is certainly not for any kind of purist, but it's worth exploring.  I can't say that I really "got it" - whatever that means - but I was glad to have been with it for a while.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Highly unlikely.  But it did make me want to look into other, more classic interpretations of the play again, to try to put together some of the pieces of what I may have been missing tonight.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Hmm...  It's not for everyone.  It's a challenging piece of theater.  But if you're up for the challenge, and willing to give yourself over to it in the manner in which the actor freely gives himself, you might find meaning.
  • Twitter review: An entirely creative re-imagining of a classic work of Western theater.  Challenging and intriguing.

Friday, April 26, 2013

FCS: The Trip to Bountiful

Quick facts:
  • Show: The Trip to Bountiful
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, April 25, 2013
  • Time: 7:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: July 7, 2013
  • Venue: Stephen Sondheim Theatre
  • Running time: 2:20 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Last row of the orchestra, almost exactly center.  So while it might have been nice to have been closer - at least not under the lip of the mezzanine - it was still a pretty good seat
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: A fiesty, but elderly woman, living in the city with her good-hearted son and domineering daughter-in-law, longs to go home - to Bountiful - the now-dead town where she grew up.

My thoughts: You know how there are some nights, when you're on a long drive home, and all you want to do is turn up the radio way too loud and listen to Bill Gaither and the Homecoming Friends sing old fashioned Southern gospel hymns, and sing along at the top of your lungs, and conduct the gospel band from behind the steering wheel as you drive down the highway?

Am I the only one that happens to?

Well, I wouldn't be, if more people saw the captivating performance of Cicely Tyson in The Trip to Bountiful.

I had never seen the 1985 movie by which most people who know this story came to know it.  So I went into the evening entirely fresh and unprepared.  I knew a basic sketch of the story, but mostly, I just knew this production boasted a stellar cast in the most literal sense of the expression: Cicely Tyson in the starring role of Mrs. Carrie Watts, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as her son, Ludie Watts, and Vanessa Williams as his wife, and Mrs. Watts' daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae Watts.  But even beyond the "above the title" stars, even the down-ticket talent was quite an assemblage: the Tony nominated Broadway veteran Condola Rashad in the endearing role of Thelma, who Mrs. Watts meets and befriends in the Houston bus station and on the ride to Harrison, and the peculiarly oft-celebrated Tom Wopat in the role of the Harrison Sherrif whose heart is predictably softened by the ever-lovable Mrs. Watts.

So knowing all of this, I knew I was in for a treat.  You don't gather a cast of that magnitude if not for a truly remarkable project.

And while it is a thrilling cast, no one can compare with the sheer emotional connection and impact of Cicely Tyson.  It would take a luminous cast to keep up with her.  The production couldn't have worked any other way.  And while I'm convinced that she could bring deep meaning and connection to even the most bland and uninteresting dramatic work, fortunately, in this delightful and thought provoking character study by Horton Foote, she had plenty more than "bland and uninteresting" to work with.

Despite her small frame and frail and ragged voice doddering across the stage, her commanding performance drew the audience in to every calculated and meticulously presented nuance of her performance and character.  Like some real life Norma Desmond, yet still in her never-ending prime, she could lift an eyebrow or barely cock her head and tell the thousand words behind her ever-percolating thoughts to the lonely audience member in the farthest reaches of the vast house.

Even in the tradition of magnificent productions and always high expectations of the Broadway stage, Tyson takes us even beyond what you might expect and raises the bar yet again.

Near the end of the first, almost awkward scene as the characters and their interpersonal baggage are introduced and explored, one of the most biting exchanges occurs between Mrs. Watts and Ludie.  She is being warned not to run off again.  As Ludie scolds his mother she stops him.  Not with anger or malice, not even with defiance, but with a shocking matter of fact declaration: quite simply, "I want to go home."

And that's where it all really lies.  Her words cut through the quick pace and distractions and relational games like a freshly sharpened knife through just-picked green tomato.

This woman has been through a lot.  We never really learn what, exactly, but the person she is says volumes about how she got there.

When she says those words, the motion of the story stopped in a pregnant pause.  Only just a second really, but enough to jar us into the finality of the declaration.  The audience audibly gasped.  This old woman means business.

The old ladies I used to know when I was growing up would say, "Lord willing and the creek don't rise."  Or for matters of greater import, "Lord willing and Jesus tarries."  But in that moment, we knew that Mrs. Carrie Watts was uninterested in the Lord's will, or any rising creek, or even the schedule of the returning Messiah.  Nothing could keep her from her goal.  For her, Bountiful was not so much a destination as a destiny.  And nothing could keep her away.  She would make her way from the two room apartment cramped by three people to the open spaces, trees, salty air and fields of Bountiful.  She came from Bountiful and needed that bounty in her life once again.

The movement of the story is basically unimportant.  My words could never do justice to the relationships she forms and the spiritual journey that would ensue.  You really must experience in its own right.

Just as the cast had to reach far higher than most to keep up with Ms. Tyson, so, too, did every other aspect of the production.  It was beautifully and capably staged by director Michael Wilson.  The scenic design by Jeff Cowie was as careful and magnificent as any I've every seen on a live stage.  And the lighting design by Rui Rita, while at brief moments a bit confusing in conveying the passage of time (did we really go that quickly from breakfast to a starry night??), was, in the full experience, beautiful, impactful, and living.

I spent the evening smiling.  I fell in love with Mrs. Watts and cheered her on to her goal.  I became infected by her gentleness, her wisdom, and her spunk.  A combination I often love in real life, and long for on the stage.  On the whole, it was a triumphant performance by an equally triumphing cast and creative team.

It was joyous, touching, and transcendent.  In short, what every night at the theater aspires to be.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Definitely.  But in fairness, I'd pay good money to see Cicely Tyson read the phone book.  And even more, I wanted to be her friend.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who? Absolutely.  To just about anyone.  I know I'm usually all about the musicals, and it's a bit odd that I've seen more straight plays this season than in my entire theater history, combined.  This one was worth it more than I could have imagined.
  • Twitter review:  Go now!  You don't have long and you'll regret letting this one slip by!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Well, okay...

Easter 3C

In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come.  Amen.

Last week felt like something of a return to the “back to normal” life for the church, after all of the excitement around Easter Day.

This week, in this epilogue to John’s gospel, we hear of the sort of “back to normal” life for the disciples.

The 21st chapter of John always makes me think of my friend, Megan, and the story she tells about her uncle.  Whenever he’s a part of a social engagement and is ready for it to be finished, he’ll simply slap his hands on his legs, say, “Well, okay…”, and stand up and walk out of the room.

No good byes.  Never seeing his guests out the door.  It’s just “Well, okay…” and he’s gone.

Over the years, this has become a kind of inside joke between Megan and me.  We talk on the phone almost every day, and if there’s a lull in the conversation, one of us will just say, “Well, okay…”, we’ll laugh, and the conversation ends.

In the 21st chapter of John, I can almost hear Peter saying, “Well, okay…”

The followers of Jesus had been through so much.  He had called them.  They had followed.  He had taught them.  They had grasped some of it.  He had done signs and wonders in their sight.  They had marveled at his power and come to worship him as the Son of God.

In the more recent days, things had changed.  They had been a part of the Last Supper.  They had prayed with him in the garden.  They had seen him arrested.  They had betrayed him and they had denied him.  They had run for fear of their own safety.  They had hidden together from the crowds.  They had witnessed his crucifixion and even his resurrection.

After all of this - the unusual years that climaxed into those final, dramatic days: the jumbled emotions of heart wrenching pain, and earth-shattering joy - after everything, they must have been sitting in that room together in a kind of stunned silence.

Where could they go from here?

As the stun began to wane and the silence grew into pregnant anticipation, Peter must have slapped his hands on his legs, stood up and said, “Well, okay…  I’m going fishing.”

At some point, life had to go on - even if now it couldn’t be recognizable as compared to the life they had before.

When your world is turned upside down, there comes a juncture wherein you simply have to go on.  And if you don’t know how to go on, you go back to the basics.

He might not have known what anything in the world meant now, but he knew how to fish.  No matter what had changed, that simple act was a constant he (and they) could still cling to.

My first serious exposure to the Episcopal Church was at Trinity Episcopal Church in Clarksville, Tennessee.  I was in school there at the time, and studying vocal music, and my voice teacher had offered me a paid position singing in the parish choir.

When I found this community, they were in the midst of recovering from a terrible trauma.  Their church and parish hall buildings had recently been destroyed by a devastating tornado.  Within weeks after the storm, while the community was just beginning to wrap their minds around the work of rebuilding, their rector suffered a heart attack and died.

The people of the parish were, understandably, devastated.  Everything that they thought was holding them together had been crushed in one swift blow after another.  By the time I found them, they were basically wandering in a stupefied daze.

Though they had no idea where to begin, the one thing they did know was that they needed to worship.  Their building was gone.  Their priest was gone.  And if they didn’t worship, their community would soon be gone, too.

So they worshiped.  They borrowed space from the local Roman Catholic church.  The choir practiced in the organist’s home.  Soon they had an interim rector.  And though things would be different, and maybe even a little uncomfortable for a while, they stumbled through by simply doing what they knew how to do.  They went back to the basics.

That’s where we find Peter and the other disciples today.  It may not even be that the shock was even gone yet, but it had somehow lost its grip on them.  Maybe they had simply grown bored with it.  But after the shock, somehow, life had to keep going.

They may not have known how to do anything else in their lives now, but they still knew how to fish.

Back to the basics.

The funny thing is - the amazing thing, really - is that, even in that: even in the most hum drum, ordinary of tasks - even in just fishing - even there, they would find Christ in their midst.

The people of Trinity Church did, too.

After the church buildings were rebuilt, and after they had moved back in, and after they had called their next rector, they reflected on their time in the wilderness, and realized that it had made them stronger.  It had brought them together in ways that they had never been truly “together” before.  And through their unity in worship and prayer in some of the darkest days of their community’s history - through getting back to the basics of what made them a Christian community - they realized that they had seen Christ in their midst.

Easter Day here was fun.  It was grand, and big, and beautiful.  It was dazzling.  I hope you felt that there was something holy happening here that day.  I know I did.

Now things are getting back to normal.

But that doesn’t mean that they have to be any less holy.  It certainly doesn’t mean that we’re any less likely to see Christ.

Things are getting back to normal, but it’s a new normal now.  A new normal, with a renewed appreciation for the truth of Christ among us.

We’ve been through our own little wilderness, and now we’re on the Resurrection side of reality.  When the bigger wildernesses come, we can traverse them with the sure and certain hope that new life will be their product.

That’s the way it works.  Just when we start to settle in, we see Christ, and we remember that normal will never be normal again.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Friday, April 12, 2013

FCS: Jekyll & Hyde

** NOTE: another pre-Opening post...  My reason this time, again - it's a short run, so time's a wastin'!  Also, this is a Broadway ending to a prior national tour, so by my judgement, the show should be pretty much set - they're not mounting it for the first time.  So here we go!

Quick facts:
  • Show: Jekyll & Hyde
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, April 11, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: June 30, 2013
  • Venue: Marquis Theatre
  • Running time: 2:20 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Pretty good.  In the orchestra, near the front - row E, far stage right.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: A musical adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - the doctor/researcher in Victorian London who's experiments on himself go terribly wrong, unleashing an inner demon.

My thoughts: I had not seen Jekyll & Hyde before, but I've long appreciated several of the songs.  I've also long noticed that the show is a bit odd in its writing, in that much of it is traditional musical theater, but inexplicably, there are several "pop" songs that seem to simply appear in the score from out of nowhere.  These are some of the strongest songs in the show, but as an experience of theater, it can be a bit disconcerting.

Sadly, however, this was not the most disconcerting aspect of this production.

I went into this performance with a mix of expectations.  On one hand, I feared the casting might be a bit too "Hollywood" for my tastes.  But on the other hand, much of the creative team assembled was spectacular.  I've seen several shows directed by Jeff Calhoun.  Tobin Ost has become one of my favorite set designers - largely after his triumph on Newsies.  The same with the lighting designs of Jeff Croiter.  I had heard mixed reviews of the projection designs of Daniel Brodie, but I have yet to see his work, so I remained open.

And many of the creative team contributions to the show were excellent.  The once-again magnificent set design of Tobin Ost was the true star of the show - or at least my experience of it.  The flexible and moving components to the set were angular and askew - giving dimension to the inner turmoil of Jekyll/Hyde, and the insanity and criminality that came to define him.  Ost's designs were very well conceived and executed.

Ost also served on this production as the costume designer.  While, on the whole, that work was as stunning as the rest of his work - there are glorious, Victorian era inspired costumes throughout the show - the one notable exception was the peculiar glimmering and capris-length cassock worn by the Bishop of Basingstoke.  As a priest, I certainly understand that clerical fashions do have a history of evolving, but I'm unaware of any cassock in that style outside of possibly Broadway's Sister Act.  And frankly, most things from Sister Act should stay right where they are -- and FAR away from me.

Despite the mixed reviews I had heard in the past, Daniel Brodie's projection designs were excellent.  He used his craft in ways that I most appreciate - as a subtle supplement to the limitations of the set, giving texture, color, and location to flexible pieces.  His use of video and animations was judicious - always in support of the story and never stealing the spotlight, as it were.  I look forward to continuing to see his work - particularly now that I've experienced it for myself!

Unfortunately, the full experience of Jekyll & Hyde did not live up to the high bar set by Mr. Ost and Mr. Brodie.  The "too Hollywood" cast fear I had proved true.

The two "above the title" stars were varying degrees of disappointing.

Constantine Maroulis, while a brilliant studio artist, was lacking on the stage.  Too often, Constantine, the man, got in the way of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the character.  I began kicking myself early in the first act for not keeping a mental tally of the number of times I caught him fidgeting with his microphone.  It was incessant - and continued throughout the show.  His shining performance was in "This is the Moment".  It was thrilling and left me in chills.  But then, amidst the thunderous applause, he broke character to bask in the accolades.  That sort of thing might work on Rock of Ages or American Idol, but in a show like this, it flattened the mood.

Deborah Cox was not nearly as disappointing, but at a few points, seemed not up to the task vocally.  She redeemed herself in Act II in "A New Life".

My favorite performances, however, came not from "above the title", but from Teal Wick in the role of Emma Carew and Brian Gallagher in the role of Lord Savage.  Both of them were a delight to hear and they delivered gripping and convincing portrayals of their characters.

On the whole, I'm glad to have finally seen this show that I've admired for so many years, and to have experienced the brilliant contributions of so many creative team members, but the production rests a bit too heavily on it's stars - who can't quite bear the burden.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  No, thank you.  I'd love to see this team at work together again on another show with a bit more engaging book and music, and a few stars who can rise to their level of excellence, but once was enough for this one.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  I probably won't go out of my way recommending it, but I also wouldn't discourage anyone.
  • Twitter review: An uneven, but basically successful production.

Friday, April 05, 2013

FCS: The Testament of Mary

** NOTE: usually I'm a pretty serious stickler for not posting reviews before the Official Opening.  I was told that it's impolite to do so, and I don't want to be impolite!  But this show's run is to be so short, and it's so worth your time, that I'm breaking my rule and posting it now.  The Testament of Mary deserves every accolade it can get, and waiting 20-something days to give it just seems unfair to all of you and to this show.  I beg your pardon and understanding.

Quick facts:
  • Show: The Testament of Mary
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, April 4, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: June 30, 2013
  • Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre
  • Running time: <1:30 (no intermission)
  • My seat: Pretty good.  In the orchestra, near the back (under the balcony overhang - never ideal, but it didn't inhibit my view), stage right.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: The story of Jesus, told from the perspective of Mary, his mother, after the death of her son.

My thoughts: Truth be told, I wasn't planning to see this show.  Not tonight anyway.  After Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, this priest was suffering from Jesus overload.  Maybe even overdose.

But...  It had been a few weeks since I'd been to the theater, and the itch was getting pretty strong.  I was searching the TDF listings every day, desperate for some light, tap-dancy thing on a big stage with a big cast and a big orchestra.  Something that would transport me on this Easter Week...

But it never came.

I had just about resigned myself to the idea that my theater itch would have to wait for next week (I've already got my ticket to see Jekyll & Hyde), when a friend dropped by my house for an afternoon visit on Monday.  He's a theater professional, and I'm a theater junkie, so among the many aspects of our lives that we discussed, we talked about what we'd seen lately.  His recommendation for The Testament of Mary was strong, so I took him at his word.  Sure - it wasn't a musical.  Sure - it was a one-woman play.  But he assured me it would be worthwhile.

Tonight, when I left the theater, I couldn't text him quickly enough to thank him for his recommendation.

The Testament of Mary is rich, emotional, and raw.  It will break your heart, and challenge you.

I'm often teased by friends for going early to the theater.  I'm often in the house as soon as the doors open.  It's rare that I'm straggling in minutes before curtain.  I like to sit in the space, and explore it with my mind.  What are the elements that are laid out before me.  Is there a curtain?  What kind?  What decorations adorn the house?  These things play a role in the experience that is being set up for me.  I want to take them in and settle myself into the experience, so that when the meat of it begins, I'm ready to go where the production is taking me.

So while I'm often teased for that, tonight was one of those nights when that pattern of mine really paid off.  The set was exposed, and there was so much to take in from the moment I found my seat.  I'll often make some preliminary notes as I sit in the house those few minutes early, but tonight I took more than two pages of notes before anything began - all just on the brilliant set designed by Tom Pye.

And though the show didn't really begin until 8:00 (quick warning here - not the customary 8:05 or 8:07, but pretty closely to 8:00 itself - and there is NO late seating at this performance. So get there on time!) - so though the show didn't really begin until 8:00, the performance really began at about 7:45.  Fiona Shaw walked across the cluttered stage carrying bulky fabric, past the vulture (a real, living vulture!) standing with its wings spread, and she entered a glass box.  She pulled the blue fabric over her head and over her faded peach dress into a headdress, she held a few lilies in her right arm and an apple in her left hand.  She sat in the glass box starring blankly ahead.

Audience members were allowed onto the stage.  They streamed on by the hundreds.  Walking around the clutter and starring into the box, with the iconic representation of Jesus' mother starring blankly back out.  It was a powerful symbol.  This woman had changed the world, and we've put her in a box.  We've silenced her.  We look on her as if she's some exhibit.  We've made her to absorb all that we need her to be, but we keep her trapped, and unable to speak for herself - unable to be and think for herself.  Merely an icon of what we imagine for her.  What we need from her.

Soon, however, the hour comes.  The audience returns to their seats, the box is raised, and Mary exits.

Tradition holds quite strongly to the view of Mary as the virginal, demure, subservient woman (undoubtedly a tradition finely crafted by men).  But the Mary that emerges from that glass box is different altogether.  She is broken.  Mad.  Angry and addicted.  Not faithful.  Not even doubtful, really.  But unbelieving and betrayed.

She goes on to tell a few of the stories from her son's life as she remembers them.  She speaks of the rising tensions around him.  She speaks of her disdain for the "band of misfits" who follow him.  When she finally gets around to recounting the crucifixion, it all becomes clear - the cigarettes and the liquor, the madness and the passion - while many had seen her son as a savior, his life wasn't a source of salvation for her; it had left her broken.

How could it be any other way?

How could any mother endure the trauma that Mary must have endured and come out any other way?

I would expect that there are a lot of people who will find this view of Mary inflammatory.  It is challenging, to be sure.  This Mary denies all divinity of Christ.  She speaks of the stories about his virgin birth and resurrection as merely tales - no, let's be honest... lies - made up by his followers to legitimize his Messiahship.

As a priest, I suppose I'm supposed to be offended by it, but the truth is I'm not.  Far from offended, I was excited by this exploration of the character of Mary.

I've often preached that I'm much more moved by the humanity of Jesus than by his divinity.  The same can be said for this experience of Mary.  She was human, and real, and flawed, and broken - just like so many of us.  She had been through unimaginable trauma.  Seeing her in this light made her, for me, much easier to relate to.

For this Mary, the question all comes down to, was it all worth it.

Whether or not any of us come to the same answer that she comes to, the question is worth considering.

And this Mary - though challenging to the traditions that surround her - is at least effective in posing the question.  When you go to meet her - leave your piety and your sensibilities, and your ability to be offended at the door.  They usually don't serve you well, anyway, and they certainly won't serve you in this experience.  Don't put any halos on Mary, but see her for what she is: a woman, a mother, and a fellow sojourner in humanity.  You may not walk away with her same view of the world - I'm pretty sure I didn't.  But your worldview will be enriched for having seen hers.  I know mine was.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Yes.  And soon.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  YES.  Feminists.  Christians.  Atheists.  Historians.  Curious thinkers.  Any mix of those.  People who just like good writing.  People who just like good acting.  (Maybe not people who are looking for tap-dancing and big orchestras, but hey...  You never know...  It sucked me in!)
  • Twitter review: I'm annoyed with myself, but I just can't think of any word more suited than "brilliant."  It just was.
Post script: This review was a bit of a departure for me.  I've focused almost entirely on the brilliant story telling by Colm Tóibín.  I have said almost nothing about the brilliant set design by Tom Pye.  I've said nothing about the also brilliant lighting design Jennifer Tipton.  I rarely comment on sound design, but the original music and sound design by Mel Mercier was just as brilliant as everything else.  I haven't really said anything about the truly radiant performance by Fiona Shaw.  But that's because it just all came together so perfectly.  The acting, every aspect of the design of the show, and the production's direction were all simply flawless, in my view.  They freed me to really immerse myself in, and revel in, this magical new telling of an incredibly familiar story.  I am grateful for that freedom beyond my ability to express.  But please don't interpret my silence on these aspects of the show as anything less than my belief that they were exactly as they should have been.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

FCS: Hands on a Hardbody

**My apologies - this entry is much later than I'd hoped it might be.  I was hoping to post it opening night, but it got lost in the busy-ness of the final weeks of Lent and preparation for Easter.  Such is the life of a professional priest/amateur theater reviewer!  But at last - here it is!

Quick facts:

  • Show: Hands on a Hardbody
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, March 7, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: Open-ended
  • Venue: Brooks Atkinson Theatre
  • Running time: 2:30 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Fine. In the mezzanine, stage left.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: A musical based on the documentary of the same name (that doesn't happen enough!) about ten hard-on-their-luck East Texans who compete to win a new pickup truck at a dealership by keeping their hands on it the longest.

My thoughts: I was really excited about this show.  It's a new musical - and not of the sort that are like pre-packaged, instant commercial successes - like jukebox musicals, or Disney movies remade for the stage, or things like that.  It was of a subject matter that rarely gets the attention of the "big time" New York stage - real life in the South.

To my delight, Hand on a Hardbody delivered.

It wasn't, by any stretch of the imagination, a brilliant theatrical event, or the kind of thing that will shape my theater-going experience for years to come...  But it was light, fun, and relevant, and spoke to contemporary culture.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that it was "important", but it danced pretty close to it.

Right out of the gate, the thing that was most impressive about the Hands on a Hardbody experience was the casting.  It was brilliantly cast!  The stage was filled not with live-action supermodels, as is so often the case on Broadway, but with people who looked like the rest of us.

Dale Soules on right
A perfect example of this is Dale Soules, in the role of Janis Curtis.  She isn't beautiful by unreasonable Madison Avenue standards.  And the design of the show doesn't attempt to make her that way.  She's older that most Broadway personalities.  Her hair is kept out of her face, but it isn't elegantly coiffed.  Her voice is somewhat scratchy and strained.  Her costume is simple everyday clothes - cargo pants and a t-shirt, and a vest like she might wear on the job at a Family Dollar store, or someplace like that.  She isn't the kind of person we typically see onstage.  But the minute I saw her, my first thought was, "I know that lady."  She was the perfect embodiment of the kind of people I interacted with every day as a child in the South.  No Madison Avenue creation could compare with that.  She was real.

And that kind of realism continued throughout the cast.  There were people who were overweight, and people who were gangling, African American, and Latino/a, even a once-upon-a-time cheerleader.  It was a picture of real life.  And it was refreshing on the Broadway stage.

While I very much enjoyed Hands on a Hardbody, I wonder if it will enjoy much in the way of commercial success.  I wonder if most people in the New York audience will really get it.

In the first big opening number, "If I Had a Truck" - the characters introduce themselves by imagining how their lives might be enhanced by winning the contest.  They speak to the kind of East Texas mindset that a truck can help to define you.  It won some laughs from the audience, but the thing is, it's sort of legitimate.  It's a different cultural reality than people in the Northeast understand, so I can see why they think it's funny, but in East Texas, there would be more head-nodding than laughing.

The music, on the whole, was engaging, but not particularly memorable, with a few exceptions.  Notably, nearly a month after having seen the show, I still find myself humming the hook of "If I Had a Truck".

"I'm Gone" was a beautiful ballad that even more beautifully captured the uncomfortable balance that the barely-getting-by people of depressed economies strike between surviving and thriving.

The real reason to by the cast recording, however, if we are fortunate enough to get one, was Keala Settle (in the role of Norma Valverde), in her triumphant performance in "Joy of the Lord".  One of the brilliant aspect of the way this show is presented is the periodic awkward silences.  It gives the audience a sense of the long hours that passed while the contestants were waiting to win.

The magic of this is that in a room of a thousand people, silence doesn't take long to become awkward.

One of these awkward silences is broken by the quiet, to-herself giggle of Norma Valverde.  The giggle slowly grows to guffaws, before erupting into the show-stopping number, "Joy of the Lord" - a rousing, a capella gospel number that shoots through the audience with electric fervor.

Keala Settle steals the show!

The final element I'd like to lift up is the lighting design Kevin Adams.  With subtlety and grace, Adams conveyed not just the steady passage of time - an important aspect of lighting design in any show, but perhaps even more so in this show, with its waiting, and staged tedium - but Adams, with his use of side lighting, and long evening shadows, was able to give the audience a sense of the hot, often oppressive, Texas sun.  Even in the cool of the theater, I could imagine the heat of the sun.  It gave us a sense of the endurance required in the competition.

While I fear that Hands on a Hardbody is not likely to have a terribly long run (and if the published grosses from the last few weeks are any indication, I'm likely to be correct), I do encourage you to see it.  In many ways, from the casting, to the music, to the staging, to the lighting - they're doing a new thing.  It's not universally successful, but it was a good night of engaging theater.  You won't want to miss it.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Possibly.  I'm unlikely to become a huge fan, but it was a good show.  If I'm itching for theater and can't find anything else that I haven't seen, I wouldn't be opposed to a repeat viewing.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Yes.  Theater people who are interested in seeing Broadway in a different way would appreciate this show.  Southerners in exile would appreciate it.  I wouldn't say this show is just for anybody, but it's probably likely to be a treat for more people than you might expect.
  • Twitter review: Revolutionary in some surprising ways, but unlikely to inspire a lot of passion.