Off-Broadway Review: “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe”

  Photo: Timothy Doyle, Vance Barton, Ginger Grace, LaTonya Borsay and Pippa Pearthree in "The Saintliness of Margery Kempe." Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Photo: Timothy Doyle, Vance Barton, Ginger Grace, LaTonya Borsay and Pippa Pearthree in "The Saintliness of Margery Kempe." Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Joseph Verlezza

  • New York Theatre Critic

Margery Kempe was an English Christian Mystic during the 14th and 15th centuries who was tried for heresy multiple times but never convicted. During the late Middle Ages, the task of interpreting the Bible and God was restricted to ordained priests but interpretation through the senses and body became the dominion of woman mystics.

Kempe’s autobiography is the first written in the English language and she is honored in the Anglican Communion, but sainthood was never recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. It is believed she gave birth to fourteen children, left her husband and family to follow her calling to achieve a “greater intimacy with Christ,” and made a pilgrimage to Venice, Jerusalem, and Rome to visit various Holy sites. During her travels, she was tempted by the devil, had conversations with and had visions of God, and repeatedly tried to attain saintliness through performing miracles. This all alludes to an interesting recollection of a historical figure, filled with twists and turns that are complicated and compelling.

Written by John Wulp, “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe” was presented for the first time by the Cambridge Massachusetts Poet’s Theatre in 1958 and is presently being revived at The Duke on 42nd Street. According to an Author’s note in the program, director Austin Pendleton rediscovered the text and being struck by its contemporaneity decided to remount the show. This present incarnation would fare much better if it had remained undiscovered, left lying dead with no attempt at revival. It is historically inaccurate, filled with tedious twists and turns that are insignificant and is complicated because it is difficult to decide if it is meant to be a comedy, drama, farce, spoof or a play of historical fiction. Following the cryptic life and journey of Marjorie Kempe as depicted through endless scenes and vignettes brought to life by actors playing multiple roles (including a horse), registers close to non- coherent, with no apparent continuity, timeline, or purpose. Weighing in at two hours and fifteen minutes the most notable and well-received line comes when an actor appears center stage to exclaim “It’s a miracle, it’s intermission.”

The production may have a few comic moments; but, they are far and few between the laborious and dull script that the actors must flounder through to get an exuberant response from the audience. The cast is overly competent and diligently attempts to transcend the material with minor success. Andrus Nichols (Margery Kempe) leads the medieval troupe with steadfast determination and a wacky mentality which befits the character, but the antics wear thin as the plot progresses despite her admirable efforts. Jason O’Connell is solid as the husband (John Kempe) but hits his stride as the tour guide to the Holy Land (Friar Bonadventure), trying to pacify his motley group from the hysterical outbursts of the self- proclaimed mystic. Timothy Doyle is delightful in various roles, with expressions that communicate more than the pretentious poetic dialogue.

There is an interesting historical narrative in the life of Margery Kempe and her ambition to be recognized as a strong, viable female and not oppressed by the male domination of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, in this revival, that profound persona is construed as lunacy all for the sake of humor. 

 

THE SAINTLINESS OF MARGERY KEMP

The cast of “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe” includes Vance Quincy Barton, LaTanya Borsay, Timothy Doyle, Michael Genet, Ginger Grace, Andrus Nichols, Jason O’Connell, Pippa Pearthree, and Thomas Sommo.

The Saintliness of Margery Kempe features scenic design by John Wulp, lighting design by Multiple Tony-winner Jennifer Tipton and Matthew Richards, costume design by Barbara Bell, and sound design and original music by Ryan Rumery. Casting by Stephanie Klapper. Production photos by Carol Rosegg.

“The Saintliness of Margery Kempe” runs at The Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street) through Sunday August 26, 2018 on the following performance schedule: Tuesday – Thursday at 8:00 p.m., Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets for “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe,” ranging in price from $55.00 to $85.00, are available for purchase online at www.margerykempe.com. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes including an intermission.