Ethnic Theater - Jewish
Mother of God? Oy,vey! Yes, we’re talking about You-Know-Who (or Whom). This time around, Mary, mother of God, a major divinity to millions of Christians, becomes a different woman. In Michele Miller’s “Mother of God!” she is Miriam, a Jewish mother who gives birth to a Jewish son. The play has just opened off-Broadway in a “workshop production,” and, if it can be considered a workshop—a play in progress--many of its sins may be forgiven.
Billed as “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “chutzpah” is the operant word here. Playwright Miller has taken on a major challenge. The Immaculate Conception becomes a Greek myth with Jewish underpinnings—or something of the sort. The God comes down from on high, offering Mary one night of divine love, which results in her pregnancy. He might be, for all we know, Zeus or Jupiter or Allah or Yahveh. (One is certainly reminded of Zeus and his many peccadillos.) “They’re all the same, all one God,” the unruffled Mary says at one point. She has fallen for G-d, much as a teen-ager might worship a pop star.
Miller is indeed ambitious, reaching, as she says in the program notes, for layers of meaning. As she claims, her play is filled with “arcane historic references,” “deliberate archaisms and anachronisms, foreign terms, and Hebrew prayers….” Though much of this, somehow, bypassed this reviewer, we accept the possibility, given Miller’s interest in ancient times and her doctorate in Archeology.
But does the play work, layers or no layers? Is the theme, the message, clear? Unfortunately, not for this viewer. The play and the production both suffer from a multiple-personality syndrome. One is never sure whether it is meant to be satire, farce, low comedy, high drama. Or is it a circus (as the background music sometimes suggests?)
And what of the plot itself?. Miller makes some interesting changes in the traditional story. Miriam is betrothed to a wealthy elderly man, Joseph, chosen by her parents. It is during this betrothal period that G-d visits the naïve young girl. “And he knew her,” as they say in the Bible.
She is thrilled to carry his child, and assumes Joseph will be pleased, too. It takes her shrewd cousin Elizabeth (who is pregnant with her own child, the future John the Baptist) to set her straight. Miriam must marry quickly, get Joseph into bed, pretend it’s his child. But it is too late. Joseph discovers the deception. It is only when she is in labor that he finally forgives her and accepts the soon-to-be-born child. And, thanks to the three kings from the East, she has a successful delivery, aided by their gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold.
Miller’s version makes for an intriguing story, one with potential, with its best moment a comic exchange between Miriam and her mother Hannah. When Hannah learns of her daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she becomes a cliché of the Jewish mother, screaming and moaning, “It’s all my fault! Where did I go wrong!”
In fact, there is far too much screaming and exaggerated performances in this production, directed by Melody Brooks. Whether Brooks’ cast of eight is capable of more subtle, in-depth performances is anybody’s guess. In any event, there are few signs of fine acting here (despite the cast credentials listed in the program)—the chief exception being the appealing Keona Welch as Miriam.
But Brooks’ other problems are not of her making. This venue at the off-off-Broadway Richmond Shepard Theatre, is very limited—a small “black box” (actually, a two-sided box), with few amenities. And obviously sparse funds have forced the company to utilize make-do props and bare bones staging. Cardboard cut-outs provide the materials for each short, choppy scene. (But such off-off-Broadway productions have been known to overcome limitations with imagination and skills.)
In all, coming to this highly-touted play with high expectations, we could not help but be disappointed. But we do not abandon hope for its future. “Mother of God!” is still in workshop mode, and may very well ultimately emerge as a worthy play.
Mar. 15, 2011