Vision Thing

Bless me, blog, for I have sinned. Last weekend I made a pilgrimage out to Fort Mason’s Northside Theater (that is to say, Magic Theatre in the off-season) to see Glory Glory, a new play by a new local theater collective, Front Line Theatre. But for a multitude of reasons—mostly deadline week and exhaustion—I haven’t been able to write about it until now, when the two-weekend run is about to end.

Lauri Smith and Ara Glenn-Johanson in Glory Glory. Photo by Tony Shayne

Written by company member Matthew Milo Sergi and codirected by Randy Symank and Sergi, Glory Glory is a dizzyingly nonlinear play based on writings by Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe ,two mystically minded Englishwomen at the turn of the 15th century who claimed visions of Jesus Christ.  It’s particularly based around a meeting that traveling visionary Margery claimed to have had with the anchoress of the Church of St. Julian in Norwich that lent credence to her own visions.

As the audience enters, Lauri Smith is already onstage as Julian of Norwich, going about her business of writing and contemplating—appropriately enough, because she never leaves her hermit’s cell in the Church of St. Julian from which she borrowed her name. Carrie Mullen set nicely evokes the surroundings of round-topped stone walls with religious icons and tiny stained-glass windows. Lovely medieval chants compete with the pop music and chatter leaking in from the lobby.

It’s a gleefully anachronistic play that uses modern dialogue and modern dress with bits of period color—or period drab, more like—such as an occasional hood. The show also uses an audience volunteer (Impact Theatre’s Reggie White on the night I saw it) to sit onstage the whole time as a stand-in for Jesus, giving the visionaries someone to talk to and Margery someone to flirt with.

At first the play is worrisomely hard to get a handle on, with Julian babbling about abstract visions as everyone else freaks out with the holy spirit around her. If it was all like that it would be a long night indeed, but fortunately after that the ecstatic hullabaloo is either dialed down several notches or regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism. The recitation of visions never ceases to be gibberish to my ears, but then it’s been nearly 20 years since I got my B.A. in philosophy and religion, so I may be a bit rusty with this stuff.

Julian’s recitations are particularly abstruse, peppered with repetitions of “backtrack” and particularly, over and over, a lengthy introduction of the time, date and number of revelations that were shown to her, “who could not read a letter.” By contract Margery’s visions are simple, frequent, and vague enough that one gets the idea from the beginning that she’s probably just making them up for the attention. It seems so certain, in fact, that she’s just a voracious gloryhound that when some evidence starts to trickle in that there may be something to her visions, it doesn’t seem fair.

The constantly pregnant Margery is greedy, obnoxious, interminably chatty, and obsessed with her own celebrity. She can’t even remember how many kids she has, although part of the problem is that time is fractured in the play and she can’t keep track of what year it is, much to Julian’s consternation. She’s constantly berating her long-suffering husband, who helps out with her prophet career as best he can but really just wants her to be a wife to him. She tours around Europe as a self-styled religious superstar, and even sings a peppy Christian rock number, “Make Me Your Bride,” composed by John Mazzei.

Ara Glenn-Johanson (who’s married to Sergi) is very funny as the infuriatingly irrepressible Margery, every inch the entitled princess who’d never even consider not getting what she wants.

Julian is stern and ultra-serious, making Margery seem even more like a fraud in comparison, but at the same time some of the things Julian says and does—emptying her bedpan over her food, for example—just seem crazy. She spends all her days processing, picking apart, and categorizing the visions that she had in a single night decades ago, and as Margery cannily points out, she may have considerably revised her own visions over the years as she tried to make sense of them. She also conceals the fact that she does her own writing, as literacy in women is suspect.

Smith makes a no-nonsense Julian, but all her stern reserve falls away when she’s reenacting her younger self fanatically hungering to know what Christ felt and making herself sick on purpose to induce a visionary state.  David Toda is a sympathetic presence as John Kempe, Margery’s long-suffering husband who follows her around like a faithful dog.

Charles Lewis III plays a multitude of priests, scribes and widows—essentially everyone else.  Although he plays each role differently, we have only the vaguest sense of who any of them are to begin with, so it’s hard to keep them straight.  Is the preacher who’s so irritated with Margery’s constant interruptions during mass the same one who tries to entrap her into revealing her lusts?

There’s also some metafictional stuff in which Julian chastens him for getting his characters mixed up or Lewis breaks character in the middle of a scene to say, “Can we finish this part later?” It’s hard to say what this really adds to the play other than maybe acknowledging that the fact that he’s playing all these roles gets confusing for all concerned.

The question of whether either or both of them are deluded is perhaps necessarily an open one. If the theological content is supposed to strike a chord, or even make sense, it’s all Babel to me. The disjointed structure of the piece is hard to follow at first, but you get the hang of it as it goes along and bits of biographical information trickle in. But it’s often quite funny, which never hurts, and the play does make you interested in the two women as characters and surprisingly involved in Margery’s story as it messily unfurls in all its self-contradictory glory.

Glory Glory
Through June 27
Northside Theater
Fort Mason Center, Building D
San Francisco.

Show #68 of 2010, attended June 18.

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