These are the questions Archipelago Theater's Nor Hall and Ellen Hemphill pose in And Mary Wept, a formidable work combining the intellectual rigor of Sartre's No Exit and the apocalyptic beauty of Eliot's The Waste Land with the dance hall brio of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. And Mary Wept counters the chaos in the world with a vision of poetic communion offered by the title character, a bizarre female shaman who somehow dwells on an island of salt.
It's unsurprising that Mary's program cites an epigram from Yeats, given that poet's status as both harbinger of modern apocalypse and chief mourner of a pre-lapsarian past. But Yeats' influence extends both to character and form. The parched lips of this production's Mary could as easily be spouting the lines of Yeats' visionary, Crazy Jane: "nothing can be sole or whole/That has not been rent." Furthermore, Yeats labeled such poems "Words for Music Perhaps," a suggestion this production takes seriously: it translates chaos into polyglot poetry in musical numbers.
The production opens with four characters in search of an afterlife. Dave (Ulrik Barfod), a corporate go-getter with the Midas Institute, instructs eager businessman in the finer points of machismo and profit-taking. Lena (Inki Storleer) is a CNN reporter who would prefer not to wait around as Rome burns a second time, a consequence of an apparent terrorist attack. Brazen traveler Miriam (Christine Morris) merely want to get on an airplane, and Dolores (Mary Ruth) needs to make it through one more day, negotiating with her mother who, in turn, cares for her daughter.
All four fall dramatically from those dubious states of grace to find themselves stranded on a blindingly white island made of salt. Mary (Liza Mayer), the island's inhabitant, schools the stunned newcomers in the duplicitous nature of their environment: the island's salt is "poison on the one hand, food on the other."
A sailor named Jack (Ian Magilton) is the island's only other occupant, albeit under duress. He reads them the rules, which prohibit infant mortality, questioning the illiterate, and purchasing power of any kind. The utter sterility of their environment casts doubt on their possibilities for survival, either in the worlds they have recently left behind (and which may no longer exist), or in this once and future limbo.
As each character comes to an epiphany within the barren, bitter landscape, Mary collects their salty tears of grace, contrition, sorrow, and gladness in a tiny bottle called a lachrymatory, a process which ultimately gives rise to redemption. Despite her name and physical association with The Virgin (Mayer wears a sky blue wrapper), Mary is a multidimensional feminine deity, whose compassion ebbs and flows according to whether or not the recipients of her largesse are capable of recognizing it.
Her character most resembles the Mazatec Indian shaman Maria Sabina, who recited poetry during sacred healing rites involving psilocybin mushrooms. In one documented ceremony, like the title character, Maria says, "Says.. woman who thunders am I, woman who sounds am I. [...] Whirling woman of the whirlwind am I, says woman of a sacred, enchanted place am I, says Woman of the shooting stars am I."
Director Ellen Hemphill's notes make explicit an underlying theme: the importance of reconnecting with the feminine principle in times of turbulence. Thankfully, the complex characterization of Mary, whose dialogue is drawn from eclectic spiritual traditions and whose persona in the hands of Mayer is appropriately unbalanced, undermines any naïve attempt to cast her in bronze as the great mother goddess or to simply elevate matriarchy over patriarchy. On this God-forsaken salt-lick of an island, Mary matters not because she is a woman, but because she knows things she can only communicate through ecstatic poetry. Each character must succumb to revelatory experience rather than look to her for counsel. Mary also matters because she is simultaneously comical and compassionate.
Like Mary, each character has a Christian counterpart, but the work's impressive range of references and tone bestows characters and themes with pantheistic resonances. In the Bible, Mary Magdalen (Lena) first witnesses the resurrection. Miriam is not only Moses's sister, but also a prophet. Both Magdalen and the Apostle John live out their lives on remote islands, where John writes the Book of Revelations.
The actors' versatility, agility and commitment to ensemble work are apparent in the charged musical numbers. By turns energetic and lyrical, amusing and harrowing, such selections form the heart of the performance. During performances of traditional music from Sicily, Japan, Norway, Bulgaria, Africa, sometime in three and four part harmony, the levels of tension, emotion, and engagement among the audience increased palpably. The actors voices conveyed the haunting strains of lullabies and laments, in a variety of languages, becoming at points pure sound. The ensemble was more than ably accompanied by Leslie Alprin on Cello, Tyson Rogers on keyboard and Eric Chaiken's particularly mournful trumpet.
As might be expected from its range and depth, And Mary Wept challenges its audience both intellectually and emotionally. While the work repays that investment--in some sense by suspending the work of understanding--in moments of harmonic and discordant poetic and musical intensity, there are undeniable frustrations when we can only make limited sense of the characters and their dilemmas.