Michele A. Miller's new play Mother of God!, presented by New Perspectives Theatre Company (and developed through NPTC's Women's Work LAB), is a strange play which contemplates what would have happened to the nativity story if Jesus were not divine. It's strange mainly for the odd tone: through most of the play's running time, it is filled with random schtick, gags, and sound effects that are reminiscent of the worst of Mel Brooks, while apparently trying to make a serious point.
In Miller's play, young Miriam (Keona Welch) is seduced and impregnated by an itinerant actor (Keith Walker) still wearing his costume of a theatrical god, and thus playing on the girl's naïveté. Meanwhile, Miriam's mother Hannah (Marisa Petsakos) and father Joachim (Ray Rodriguez) have her betrothed to the elderly and wealthy Joseph (Charles E. Gerber), who, as in the cliché standup comedy bit, is not thrilled to have his supposedly virginal wife full with child. Meanwhile, some peripatetic traders Caspar (Walker again) and Melchior (Rodriguez again) have brought astrologer Balthasar (Erwin Falcon) all the way from China to pull a prophecy scam on King Herod using Balthasar's astrological charts. It seems almost as though Miller is attempting to provoke accusations of sacrilege, but the satire has no teeth, and shouldn't truly be offensive to anyone except the most devout (who most likely would not attend in any case). It seems merely like an overlong burlesque skit on the nativity.
Melody Brooks directs the play like a wacky circus, with zany music between each scene as the actors change the set (most of which, like the props, are two-dimensional pieces of wood). Although in her director's program note, Brooks expresses a wish to "investigate the human condition and search for Truth", she frequently seems to be fighting the sincere message of the script by turning it into a cartoon, though this is not entirely her fault; the script itself veers wildly between deliberate anachronistic comedy (Act II begins with Hannah hitting every Jewish Mother stereotype possible) and serious contemplation of quasi-biblical situations.
The acting is mainly over-the-top and silly- the 3 magi come off more like the 3 stooges. It's clear that everyone's been directed to speak and wink to the audience, and indicate through gestures any jokes that might come up, which, in a Brechtian manner, destroys any empathy we might for them, though whether that was the intent is debatable. Welch, as the closest thing to a straight man in the piece, is adorable and charming. Though one wonders how dumb Miriam must have been to fall for the Young Actor's line, and believe it deeply enough to tell everyone that her child was the son of god (especially after it's specifically pointed out that Miriam's cousin Elizabeth (Karin de le Penha) used to read Greek plays with her (though despite her wealth, where Elizabeth found those "books", who knows)), Welch pulls it off. Gerber is good, though seems to have dropped in from an entirely different (possibly Shakespearean) play.
Unfortunately, the play as presented is neither funny enough to be a madcap comedy, nor offensive/provoking enough to be truly interesting (Several audience members could be seen to nod off during sections, although the 5-year-old child seated behind me declared it the best play he'd ever seen).
New Perspectives Theatre Company presents
Mother of God!
Richmond Shepard Theatre
309 East 26th Street, NYC
March 10-26, 2011
Wednesday - Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm
Tickets $18 ($15 students and seniors)
www.theatermania.com or by phone at 1-866-811-4111
Running Time: 2 hours
Website: www.nptnyc.org or www.motherofgod1play.wordpress.com
Photo Credit Rafael Jordan:
- Foreground: Keona Welch and Charles E. Gerber, Background: Ray Rodriguez
- L-R: Ray Rodriguez, Keona Welch, Charles E. Gerber, Keith Walker, Erwin Falcon