The onstage installation which the audience is invited to come up and inspect before the performance of Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary (Walter Kerr Theatre) includes a live vulture, an object of fascination to me. My experience of vultures is limited, since Broadway producers rarely appear onstage themselves. The actual bird, which spreads its wings once (I assume on cue) before its handler removes it to a safe place offstage, looks mightily impressive, calm and dignified, a credit to its species.
Then the audience returns to its seats, the curtain comes down—which seems a backward way of starting a show—and elements of the installation are cleared off so that the performance can begin. The performance features Fiona Shaw, also visible as part of the pre-show installation, who is an object of fascination to many, but not, I regret, to me. Unlike the vulture, which does only what is necessary for vultures, and rarely preens its superb feathers, Shaw is an actress whose sole determination seems to be to call attention to herself. Her technical skills, like the vulture’s wingspan, reach out extensively, but few artists in any field have ever preened themselves so relentlessly over their technique.
You might assume that playing Mary, mother of Jesus, would lead an actress toward a degree of humility, or at least simplicity. Shaw, instead, is led by her director, Deborah Warner, toward a nearly nonstop display of busy, show-offy overemphasis. In Tóibín’s text, Mary, in the time following her son’s crucifixion, is grief-stricken, distraught, angry, and resentfully suspicious of the constant callers (never identified except as “they”) who keep trying to make her version of events jibe with the myth they want to transmit to the world—a string of feelings that should offer its performer ample opportunities without requiring over-demonstration.
Over-demonstration, however, is Shaw and Warner’s stock-in-trade. You’ve never seen such a bustling busybody as this Mary, though her business—carried out on a semi-abstract set cluttered with rehearsal furniture and props—has a reckless irrelevance to the text. She constantly picks things up and drops them, or throws them away; she shoves chairs and tables around pointlessly, or overturns them; she compulsively nibbles tidbits of something from a jar. To cleanse herself of the memory of the Crucifixion, she strips and showers onstage. Every few minutes, it seems, she fishes up a new accessory to add to her basic black rehearsal outfit—a cape, a shawl, a sleeveless tunic, a headscarf. Separated from the words, the physical event suggests an attempt to produce a fashion show inside a slapstick two-reeler.
The verbal accompaniment to this manic cartoon gets no better treatment. Shaw rarely speaks, in the simple sense of the word, as human beings on- or offstage speak to one another. She has no time for that basic function: She’s far too preoccupied with finding a verbal effect for every phrase. She mutters, she mumbles, she shrieks, she groans, she shouts, she gabbles, she croaks, she spits syllables with heavy sarcasm, or she lays them down heavily one by one, like thudding stones. When no props are readily to hand, she accompanies the vocal effects. At one point, spreading her arms and screeching out the last word of a sentence, she even imitates the vulture. Only in one brief passage, when she narrates the raising of Lazarus, does she sit still and speak quietly, to powerful effect. Everything else is excessive.
And what is all the excess there to convey? Frankly, very little. Tóibín’s text, not insincere and not badly written, traverses, rather superficially, a set of thoroughly familiar questions and ironies about the story of Jesus and the myth that Christianity has shaped from it. Voltaire, Renan, Kazantzakis, and Terrence McNally were all there before him, along with countless others, and he offers no startling advance on their notions. His big shocker, at the end, is to have Mary say that the salvation of the world was not worth her son’s suffering and death. Well, probably the mothers of most of the men the Romans crucified felt exactly the same way, and they didn’t get the honor of having their kids worshiped as divine.
In our time, regrettably, religion carries little meaning except for extremists. What our crowds worship is the idol of Celebrity. Shaw’s shallow self-indulgence in this cluttered piece of gratuitous flimsiness is just another opportunity for ticket buyers to dance in ecstasy around the Golden Calf of stardom. Those of us not so easily swept away need not bother wasting our time and money.