Theater as Devotion

The Tidings Brought to Mary is 20th-century French dramatist Paul Claudel’s take on medieval mystery plays, which were based on Biblical readings, and originally performed by clergy until a papal writ in 1210 forbade them and guilds took their place, earning these plays the name “misterium,” Latin for occupation. Within the limitations of this form, Claudel’s poetic language and the cast’s energetic and heartfelt performances make what could be a dull recitation of religious maxims an affecting drama. If The Tidings Brought to Mary sometimes feels like a relic, perhaps its message will appeal to an audience living in a world of turmoil. For Claudel, the solution for a society in which the center does not hold is simple: the center is the cross—redemption and eternal glory through devotion and suffering. Set in 15th-century France on a farm in the Champagne region, the play opens with a moment of tension: Pierre De Craon, the town’s master builder, who is erecting a cathedral, suffers incredible desire for a young peasant girl, Violaine, which impels him to try to rape the girl. She foils his attempt, and it’s after this encounter that we enter the story. De Craon is shaken to the core, unhappy about both his desires and his inability to fulfill them, saying, “What man who loves does not want all he loves?” He believes his impure thoughts have marked him with leprosy (a commonly held conception in medieval Europe), which he conceals by wearing a robe.

Rather than criticize and spurn De Craon, Violaine feels deep compassion for him. She wants to share in his joy and grief, but he is overwhelmed by her empathy and happiness. After they circle each other with increasing tension, Violaine gives herself to Pierre, and kisses the leper, thereby sealing her terrible (here, a good thing) fate. Further complicating the narrative, this forbidden kiss is witnessed by Mara, Violaine’s jealous sister.

As De Craon, Douglas Taurel paces with apt gravity, and in the role of Violaine Erin Beirnard blinks with the innocence of a sacrificial lamb, but it would be nice to see the two actors feed off of each other more. The audience could perhaps then understand the depth of the “cup of sorrow” passed between them. As it is, their relationship seems a bit superficial, a recitation of their roles in society and in the drama. Perhaps with more performances the two actors will achieve a rhythm that will give this first scene the power it requires.

The nocturnal meeting between De Craon and Violaine, and most of the play’s action, take place in a space made to look like a stable. The biblical implications of every arrangement and set piece are thoughtfully executed in the Storm Theatre’s production. In particular, the lighting design stunningly renders the day’s changing light. We are made to feel that the farm’s humble spaces are as filled with God’s presence as a church. At times, the soft lighting can even make certain scenes look like works of religious art. But like a religious painting or icon, there is something stagnant about the play. With Claudel’s archetypal characters and obvious intentions, it’s as though one can only watch this story to satisfy preexisting mores.

Fortunately Mara is there to spice things up, incorporating shame, guilt, and the deviousness of a wicked sister. As Mara, Laura Bozzone flies into the play with exciting fury, and the huffiness and whine of a modern teenager. Such modern touches make the play feel more relevant and vibrant. Jenny D. Green’s performance as Elizabeth Vercors achieves a similar feat: she draws on familiar caricatures of shrewish wives, but also incorporates the self-aware nagging of modern comediennes.

Though Mara’s feistiness is enjoyable, Bozzone’s performance can come across as a one-note song. In particular, her tone in the final scenes calls for more nuance; is Mara truly unchanged?

Still, Mara’s fire makes her more relatable than Violaine, who’s all black and white. In considering Violaine, there’s little to do but marvel that all’s right in the world of the devout. The sinners are more interesting. It would be nice if the production looked more deeply at Mara, who must reconcile conflicting emotions and a confounding miracle. Unfortunately, Claudel avoids complexity, and the character lacks the depth of emotion that makes the complicated women of other plays electric and thought provoking (as in Macbeth).

Yet there is beauty in simplicity. As in many religious stories, good triumphs over evil: Violaine dies happily, her sister realizes the error of her ways, and the prodigal father is restored to his family. This production honors the play’s uncomplicated beauty with an earnest rendering, but one cannot help but hope for gray, like the complicated shade of the silver flower of leprosy, to cast doubt, and give us something to ponder.

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