Friday, June 24, 2011

The Magdalene

Was Mary Magdalene possessed by evil spirits, or was she a mystic with awareness of, and access to, spiritual power? Was Mary one of the first disciples of Jesus, and more than any of the other apostles a nearly equal co-participant in Jesus’ ministry of preaching, and, in the final days of his ministry, his wife? Was she to blame for his death? Did she write her own Gospel before sailing for France, where she would bare Jesus’ daughter?

These are just some of the provocative theories explored, and perhaps faith challenging questions asked, in The Magdalene: A Musical Play, now in previews at the The Theater at St. Clements, 423 West 46th Street, NYC.  I find it both ironic and symbolic that a play such as The Magdalene would be running in a building still serving as an active church. Perhaps there is hope for the Church, after all.

Shad Olsen not only plays one on the lead characters, Yeshua, he is also the playwright. Shad calims to have been influenced and inspired by his teacher, James Olm, who wrote the music. He also credits the writings of Margaret Starbird.  As I experienced this musical, I heard what I thought were echoes of both Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. I saw scenes which reminded me of scenes from Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ. The sparse set and costumes were enough to transport me back two-thousand years ago to Palestine without detracting from, or adding to, the both spoken and sung script.

Olsen offered not a meek and mild saintly Yeshua, but rather a peace loving man, or rather a loving peaceful man, who sought nothing but to accept people as they were and to share with them God’s love. For this Yeshua, that is all God is, love, and love is also God.

The title character, Mary Magdalene, played by Lindsie Vanwinkle, seemed to alternate between a whimpering but self-righteous victim and a brash self-confident religious and spiritual rebel whom never seemed to be at peace with herself. The strength of VanWinkle’s craft was evident during an after performance talkback between the cast and audience when she appeared nothing like her character.

Faith Annette Engine ably portrayed the little girl that I was never sure was all angel or a mixture of little angel and a little demon, or perhaps an outward manifestation of Mary’s unconscious with just a little of the collective unconscious added in as well.

Evangelia Kingsley embodied the Rivkah roll, an older, blind midwife who subtly guides the birth of her assistant as Mary is transformed from abused daughter to a religious and spiritual leader, and then later becomes one of the followers of Yeshua and Mary.

I was most pleased, however, with the performance of supporting actor Eugene Barry-Hill, who boldly and confidently filled the Pilatus character with hints of modern street pimp, Wall Street tycoon, and the manipulative and opportunistic politician seeking re-election.

While some less informed in the audience might find their religious sensibilities and sensitivities, if they have any, challenged, there is nothing new here, at least not for anyone familiar with Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, or the writings of Margaret Starbird, or who are familiar with the Gnostic Gospels. I was first exposed to the theory that Mary Magdalene and Jesus may have been married in the mid 1970’s when I was an undergraduate studying under the tutelage of the late William E. Phipps, Ph.D., who decades ago explored topics such as The Sexuality of Jesus, Was Jesus Married?, and Recovering Biblical Sensuousness.

I enjoyed The Magdalene sitting front and center, flanked by two other Mainline Ordained Ministers, both female, who, while seeing and hearing a few things slightly differently than I did, both liked the play. The Magdalene runs about ninety minutes without any intermission.

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