Hurry and try to catch The
Saintliness of Margery Kempe at the Duke before it closes August 26 to
enjoy the memoir of a would-be reality star, Medieval style
The Saintliness of Margery Kempe is based
on the apparently incredible life of the 14th Century English mystic
Margery Kempe and inspired by The Book of Margery Kempe, which is considered by
many to be one of the first autobiographies in the English language.
The play, which was John Wulp's
debut work, won a Rockefeller Grant and was first presented by Poet's Theatre
in Cambridge, MA, in 1958 and in a revised form off Broadway in 1959. The
multi-talented director, actor and playwright Austin Pendleton rediscovered the
text of the Cambridge production and struck by its timeliness decided to
introduce the play to a contemporary audience with the support of Mr. Wulp, who
is now ninety.
It tells the story of a woman
hungry for self recognition who did not want her life to be defined either by
men or the strictures of her everyday society. The gap between her
ambitions and her ability embodies the entire human condition.
In this self-absorbed cyberspace
age, it's not unusual to find countless individuals who think that their
thoughts about life worth sharing. In fact, it's almost impossible to keep a
secret today. However, in the 14th and 15th centuries it was certainly
sui generis to find a woman of that mindset, especially one who could neither
read nor write and had to dictate her memoir for posterity. Yet meeting
the ambitious, aggressive and adventurous Margery Kempe perfectly portrayed by
Andrus Nichols (a founding member of the innovative Bedlam theater company),
her life's story becomes entirely believable. No matter how self-aggrandizing
Margery becomes (on a scale of 1-10 that's an 11), Ms. Nichols always conveys
the character's very human desire to achieve a life beyond the expected or
Also perfect is the performance
of Jason O'Connell who portrays Margery's put-upon husband, John, and the
sorely-tried Friar Bonadventure forced to cope with Margery upending his
tour group's pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, as well as the role of the
The Saintliness of Margery Kempe is
recounted as a picaresque parable in which Margery attempts to fulfill her
destiny as she wishes it would be. Leaving her husband and brood of
offspring, Margery embarks upon her quest "to do something
spectacular" by first buying and running a traveling brewery.
She fails spectacularly and is forced to retreat home still miserable and
restless. When her husband in an effort to comfort her volunteers the
idea that "Saints are free from the cares that beset Earthbound
Souls," Margery determines that "only Saints are free," and
she decides that she is going to be a Saint offering up a bevy of visions to
clergy and common folk alike along with a miracle she "made" which
entails a stone dropping on her head while at prayer in church.
On her journey of self-determination,
Margery encounters a parcel of colorful personages among them the handsome Man
in Black, a personification of the Devil, charmingly played by Vance Quincy
Barton. She inveigles her way into a tour group making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem "Wherever God bids me go, I go. If I ask you to take me there, how
can you refuse? To deny me would be to deny God." Ultimately,
Margery discovers that whatever happiness actually is, it exists in her own
back yard at home.
LaTonya Borsay and Ginger Grace in "The Saintliness of Margery Kempe"
directed by Austin Pendleton at The Duke on 42nd Street. Photo © Carol Rosegg
Though Wulp's script could use a
bit of trimming, Margery's travels to the Holy Lands in Act II are worth the
price of admission alone. Pippa Peartree is outstanding as a rich widow,
Mistress Fribley, on the pilgrimage to save her late husband's soul from
damnation and perhaps find a new spouse on the journey. Her face-off with
Margery is stunning.
Except for Andrus Nichols who embodies
Margery, all other eight actors, some already mentioned, wear multi-hats doing
so successfully, but with varying degrees thereof.
The production has been
effectively mounted at the Duke by a creative team that includes Jennifer
Tipton and Matthew Richards on lighting; Ryan Rumery adding music and sound;
and Barbara A. Bell contributing costumes. The scenic design is by
playwright John Wulp.
Though this delightful production
is closing shortly, let's hope it will not be another sixty years before it is
The Saintliness of Margery Kempe
229 West 42nd Street
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Closing date: August 26,2018