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The Testament of Mary

Colm Tóibín's controversial play about the mother of Christ makes a snore-inducing Broadway debut. logo
Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary.
(© Paul Kolnik)

Who would have thought that a play with such an iconoclastic subject matter, one that has already garnered protests from Catholic fanatics outside the theater, would prove to be so God-awful boring? With an immensely talented actor like Fiona Shaw, a thoughtful writer like Colm Tóibín, and a deft director like Deborah Warner, The Testament of Mary, now at the Walter Kerr Theatre, has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, the play drowns in the cavernous venue and no amount of unbridled emotion from Shaw or stage business from Warner can save it.

Taking place "Now," according to the program, The Testament of Mary features Mary (Fiona Shaw), the mother of Jesus Christ, spilling her guts to the audience about the crucifixion and death of her son. She doesn't believe that Jesus is the son of God and she's fed up with all of his weirdo cult followers. She takes us through his numerous miracles (water into wine, raising the dead, etc.), casting doubt on each one. She offers a painfully detailed account of the crucifixion and its frustrating aftermath, shattering the traditional telling of the gospels along the way.

Warner has wisely opted to invite the audience on stage in the last ten minutes before the play begins to inspect the scene close up: Shaw sits encased in a glass box like Tilda Swinton doing an installation piece about old-Catholic-lady garden statues. Her hair is covered in a blue sheet and she clutches a heart-red apple. The stage is littered with artifacts (nails, papers, booze) while a large bird of prey sits perched on a block of wood. Set designer Tom Pye has even transformed a trap door and the space beneath the stage into an archaeological dig site, only viewable by the audience in these first moments. Breaking with traditional Broadway protocol, the production encourages audience members to take pictures during this time, which proves to be the most controversial thing about the show. I loved it.

Unfortunately, once the play begins in earnest, we're sent back to our seats, some of them hundreds of feet away from Shaw. This physical distance serves to separate us from the story.

Tóibín's writing is earthy and vivid, but Mary's extended descriptions and specific images would feel more appropriate in a novel rather than on the stage. Shaw makes it work, but that is a testament to her talent as an actress more than anything. Warner seems to have responded to the extended periods of dreamy explication by inventing a ludicrous amount of stage business to keep the actress occupied and moving.

Shaw putters around the gigantic stage, moving set pieces, rolling cigarettes, and grazing on snacks. Occasionally she knocks over some chairs in a fit of rage, if only to wake up some of the drowsier members of the audience. The conceit seems to be that we're in Mary's house/prison, listening to her story as if we're some visiting friends. How much better would that experience be if it were in a more intimate space in which Mary could share the snacks that she prepares throughout the show with her guests?

Broadway is not an appropriate venue for The Testament of Mary. Tóibín's play about the regular woman who cannot deal with the frenzy around her eccentric and dead son would be better suited for a nontraditional space where patrons could get to know her humanity up close and personal. As it stands, that giant proscenium serves the same purpose for Mary as a pedestal in a Catholic Church.