Holier Than Thou

“It’s 1401. They don’t burn women anymore!” That’s the funniest of many funny lines in Heidi Schreck’s otherwise quite serious medieval-period Creature. It’s spoken by John Kempe (Darren Goldstein), whose wife, Margery (Sofia Jean Gomez), claims that, among other things, Jesus has appeared to her wearing purple robes. The actors in Creature pull off a monumental feat by convincing us that their characters are relevant not only to the year 1401, but to our world as well.

Margery Kempe actually existed. She lived in Norfolk, England from 1373-1438 and published what many believe to be the first ghostwritten (she was likely illiterate) autobiography in the English language. Part Shakespeare, part Wayne’s World, Creature is a tour de force, complicated, rich and thought provoking on too many levels to count. Ms. Schreck, the 2009 Page 73 playwriting fellow, utilizing familiar and ancient themes like superstition and sacrilege, has woven together an utterly original play, as communicative to our age as to an earlier one.

When we meet her, Margery is a new mother in the midst of a crisis. Uneducated, yet highly intelligent, brimming with desire and imagination, she becomes convinced that demons have possessed her soul and begins acting appropriately wacky. She’s “cured” after her vision of Jesus, but that’s not the end of her strange behavior; in fact, it’s just beginning. Her husband, John, a levelheaded, pragmatic brewer, adores her for her physical beauty and can’t understand why she won’t be content as a simple housewife. Feeling sinful and convinced that she’s answering God’s call, Margery avoids her husband’s amorous advances and seeks to know her creator, meeting, along the way, two holy men who quickly become enamored with her. One of them is a devil.

Despite weaknesses of the flesh, Margery aspires to join her heroes: women recognized as visionaries and sought after for their holiness. Audacious in her demonstrations, Margery prays loudly in public and boldly wears white (considered heretical for married women). If Margery were alive today, she would have her own reality show. She’s in a competition, trying to outdo others renowned for their saintliness. All the while, the countryside buzzes with talk of witches. Local women use animal bones to cast spells on their enemies. The authorities are burning “lollards:” those who believe that the church is an unnecessary conduit to salvation. Margery skirts dangerously close to accusations of witchcraft.

Yet, Margery is often hilariously naïve, believing that she can simply will herself onto the path of sainthood. Learning that a contemporary, Juliana of Norwich, has followers who bring her food, she states to her advisor, Father Thomas (Jeremy Shamos): “I’d like to live in a little house and have my followers bring me food. Though it depends on what kind of food they bring. I love honey cakes.” Margery even seeks advice from Juliana (Marylouise Burke) herself, an old woman who has lived in one room her entire life, meditating and avoiding temptations of the senses. Juliana has become something of a legend, and basks in her fame, even signing certificates that one can use as protection from accusations of heresy.

Temptations, for Margery, come in many forms, including that of a devilish, stuttering young man (Will Rogers, oddly playing almost the same character he played last year in Edward Bond’s Chair) who follows Margery to her praying spot and strikes up a conversation with her, ultimately attempting, in a roundabout way, to seduce her into hell. Though she (barely) resists his overtures, she is tainted.

All the actors are outstanding, but Mr. Shamos turns in a particularly strong performance as Father Thomas, a repressed middle-aged priest who at first disbelieves Margery and tries to shrug her off. This changes when, appealing directly to his vanity, the manipulative Margery mentions that she has spoken with Jesus about him. Reeling him in like a fish, she tells him that God is pleased with his servitude and that he will die in seven years, a good man.

Ms. Gomez’s performance is utterly convincing as the tortured and possibly mentally ill Margery, moving in the blink of an eye from hysteria to sadness and back again. Through her, Ms. Schreck examines what it means to be “holy,” showing the difficulty of separating the earthly from the otherworldly. Can someone ever truly claim to be “pure?”

Set designer Rachel Hauck and costume designer Theresa Squire work beautifully together to paint a convincing period piece, shrouded in darkness. The Ohio Theater’s almost cathedral-like space, spookily dotted with candles, is the perfect place to house Creature. Veteran director Leigh Silverman wisely moves out of the way of these extremely talented actors—all of whom understand exactly what they’re doing with this complex script— and lends a light but deft touch to the proceedings.

Creature does everything right, managing to be historically fascinating, loaded with depth and entertaining, all at once. I recommend it to anyone who relishes compelling new theater.

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