Playwright Stan Peal has got me buffaloed. His play, Gospel of the Messiah Widow, is ostensibly a revisionist look at the gospels, but it's hard to pinpoint what audience it's been revised for. The mad monk Rasputin, perhaps, if he were a frequent patron of Asian Media Access's Cinema with Passion series. Let me explain: The play opens with a scene of extraordinary power: A seminary dropout (played by Garry Geiken) on the exhausting pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain encounters a group of locals who are desperate to find someone who speaks English. A local girl (Carolyn Pool) has become possessed, suddenly speaking fluent English, a language she had never previously known. The girl is reciting words of a gospel, but it is a gospel that is unknown, beginning with the death of Jesus and following the story of his wife, who found the risen Son of God in his tomb, and who had her virginity miraculously returned by him.
So, by what process do we end up two and a half hours later at the gates to the Garden of Eden with Mary Magdalene (Laura Depta) and St. Peter (Zach Curtis) in the middle of a kung fu battle to the death? And I don't mean that as hyperbole: This play has as much kung fu in it as a Hong Kong action film, so much so that it might have been called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Mary. Or we might call it Magdalene: Warrior Princess, as along the way the story picks up a barbarian warrior woman (Kourtney Kaas) who all but lets out Lucy Lawless's shrill ay-yi-yi-yi-yi battle cry and performs multiple back flips toward her enemies.
This is, as you might gather, a play that is at once utterly earnest and breathtakingly silly, providing its audience with compelling but completely contradictory impulses. There is a scene in which Mary Magdalene surrenders her newly restored virginity to a shepherd after both witness some sort of orgiastic pagan ritual in the woods (represented onstage by characters in flowing robes prancing across the stage). Mary's seduction of the shepherd involves her reciting passages from the Song of Songs (which is indeed an old seduction technique, though it is hard to believe it ever worked) and we must fight the urge to rise from our chairs and cry out, "But this is preposterous!" Even if we try to rise, we are bound to our seats, because whatever nonsense is happening onstage, there is unexpected beauty to it. The experience is maddening, and I still haven't completely shaken it.
Stan Peal is one of a gang of multihyphenate theater people who seem to inhabit the small performance space of the Cedar Riverside People's Center, all running their own theater companies while appearing in (or directing, or designing, or working the box office for) one another's productions. Sometimes the gang shows up under the auspices of Fifty Foot Penguin. Sometimes they produce a play as Theatre Unbound. Messiah Widow is a Bald Alice production, but if you glance at the programs for most shows in this venue, the names are almost exactly the same, and Stan Peal's is usually among them. Onstage he is typically a droll, cheery fellow, as he has an easygoing, unaffected comical quality: A raffish grin and a slightly raised eyebrow speak volumes with Peal. But, as with everybody in this People's Center gang, Peal wears a few hats, and one of them is playwright: His bio credits him with no fewer than ten scripts.
Peal has a flair for the theatrical not hinted at by his subdued acting demeanor. Aside from writing Messiah Widow, he also directed it, and when he doesn't have characters performing tai chi on rocks or mentally flinging one another across the stage, they are dancing or reciting genealogical passages of scripture while wearing kimonos and waving huge Japanese fans, or simply making out like eager high school sweethearts. And frequently they stop everything altogether to engage in long metaphysical discussions, which is likewise a bewildering admixture, in this case combining reputable biblical scholarship with neo-pagan nonsense--again like an episode of Xena.
It is surprising to see a swords-and-sorcery epic mounted as a play, as the results often seem awkward: Onstage fights, for example, no matter how well executed, often seem patently false. The stage is a tricky medium on which to attempt fantasy--although even in the plainest of plays, a little bit of fantasy always seems to leak in. Consider Gus Edwards's Louie and Ophelia, currently at the Penumbra Theatre. While on its surface the script seems a straightforward romance between a middle-aged couple, one senses a little bit of wish fulfillment going on. The wish is that love will prevail, even with a couple as mismatched as that of the title characters.
Let us look at Ophelia. As played by Regina Marie William, she is a fidgeting mess of a woman with easily bruised feelings, as well as an unfortunate habit of accidentally belittling everything outside of her own few selfish needs. She hooks up with a middle-aged restaurant cook named Louie (played by Jim Craven), who is a decent fellow, if a little lacking in ambition, and the play follows the arc of their relationship as her increasing demands start to whittle away at the tenuous romantic bond between the two.
Jim Craven is a marvelous performer, giving Louie both a short fuse, a quiet sense of humor, and a pointed way of demanding to be treated properly. He also has a wealth of generosity and decency--you can see why a woman might think he's a worthwhile catch.
But theirs is a relationship with an expiration date stamped right on the top of the box: The two characters really have very little in common, and neither of the performers nor director Lou Bellamy finds any but the most tenuous connection between them. They're both lonely, have a sort of grudging respect for each other, and want to be in a relationship--and that's it.
The play tackles a perfectly ordinary subject, namely, the day-to-day squabbles of a middle-aged African-American couple, yet we don't see this on the stage very often. In the arts, romance--even if doomed--is usually reserved for the young. The play ends on a hopeful note, as romances do, allowing for the unlikely possibility that love alone is enough. I didn't need the ending. I'm creeping up on the decade that leads to middle age, and even failed romances are starting to seem appealing to me.
Gospel of the Messiah Widow plays through February 24 at the Cedar Riverside People's Center; (612) 870-9987. Louie and Ophelia plays through March 4 at the Penumbra Theatre; (651) 224-3180.