Many tourists to Jerusalem will place a palm against the Wailing Wall or murmur a prayer in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But few will separate themselves from friends and family, bathe excessively, make robes from their bedsheets, travel to holy sites, and declaim sermons. These tourists will receive a diagnosis of Jerusalem Syndrome. This rare delirium affects people with little history of psychosis or strong religiosity.
Jerusalem Syndrome also affects and informs Lear deBessonet’s transFigures, currently at the Women’s Project, an exhibition of religious mania. In the course of the play we meet two sufferers of Jerusalem Syndrome, as well as Joan of Arc, an undergrad who speaks to God, and John Salvi, the man who opened fire at two Boston abortion clinics. DeBessonet, with the aid of playwright Bathsheba Doran and dramaturg Meg Carter, has assembled her text from such far-flung sources as film documentarian Erin Sax Seymour, religious journalist Russell Shorto, Ibsen, the Bible, playwright Charles Mee, and “Post-It notes of New York secretaries.” But transFigures isn’t nearly so fractured as this diverse list of contributors might suggest (though we’re still not entirely sure about the Ibsen). What cohesion exists owes largely to the fineness of deBessonet’s staging, her ability to mingle multiple scenes, to link them through movement and gesture.
DeBessonet’s quite young, a few years shy of 30, but she’s already made her name down- town and wooed impressive collaborators— transFigures includes Juliana Francis as both a devout secretary and Joan of Arc, and T. Ryder Smith as a neurologist and Salvi. DeBessonet is also refining a style—intelligent bricolage, enhanced by murky lighting and shuddering choreography. Though her early productions (Bone Portraits, Death Might Be Your Santa Claus) have been absorbing, one can’t help anticipating her future work, when her various interests and techniques will mature and deepen.
TransFigures may concern itself with a fascinating subject, but the piece doesn’t ultimately offer much insight into it. The collage deBessonet has assembled is striking, but perhaps rather shallow. (Tellingly, deBessonet prefers to use the stage’s length rather than its depth.) At 80 minutes, she can’t do much more than introduce the characters and situations. No matter how successfully interwoven, these varied sources and narratives don’t have time to enhance or involve one another. Who knows if the origins of religious mania can ever be successfully demonstrated—onstage or off—but it seems surprising the play would content itself with merely representing them. DeBessonet can offer us every crease and ripple in the bedsheets used to make those robes and togas, but she doesn’t reveal what’s underneath them.