The Magdalene Variations
Review by Sean McQuaid
Will the real Mary Magdalene please stand up? The Magdalene Variations asks that question by dramatizing tales of the titular saint’s life in a thoughtful and unexpectedly entertaining way.
Staged by UPEI’s Vagabond Productions, written by Drs. Greg Doran and Catherine Innes-Parker and directed by Doran, the play is an original script about one of Jesus Christ’s more colourful disciples.
Mary has had her share of image problems over the millennia. Male-dominated church leadership has often deemphasized her role in early Christianity, especially disputed accounts of Mary emerging as a spiritual leader after Christ’s death.
In addition, centuries of artists ranging from Titian to Andrew Lloyd Webber have tended to exploit Mary’s salacious side as a once-wanton woman redeemed by her faith in Jesus. Mary’s practically the prototype for pop culture’s hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché, the red-headed role model for Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty, Pretty Woman and so on.
The Magdalene Variations (or TMV to save ink) throws all of the above into one big theatrical blender by intermixing scenes lifted from various medieval plays about the character and charting Mary’s evolution as both sinner and saint.
At least a few readers have done the mental math by now and concluded that “religious figure plus medieval play adaptation” probably equals a trip to Slumberland—but if so, they’ve miscalculated.
Granted, TMV isn’t nonstop frolic; in particular, one segment performed in Latin, while a technically impressive homage to the way early churches would have presented these stories, runs long enough to have viewers checking watches or craving subtitles.
Most of TMV, however, entertains at least as well as it enlightens. Even knowing how things turn out for Mary, the script still elicits sympathy and even suspense over her struggles with sin and doubt; and more surprisingly, there’s lots of laugh-out-loud comedy.
Much of that comedy comes from the personified vices and worldly pleasures who tempt Mary to sin, a subversively charming rogues gallery of bad influences. Which raises one of the best features of TMV’s debut production: its superb cast. A baker’s dozen, almost all playing double or triple roles, and not a dud in the bunch.
In particular: Toni Timmins is winningly earnest as Mary, Devin MacKinnon is a fiercely intense Satan, Brian Ansems has divine comedic instincts as Curiosity, sonorous funnyman Ben Hayman’s Gluttony is weirdly spooky, Robyn Biggar is a leeringly honey-voiced treat as Sensuality, and Ashley MacLeod is a luminously self-satisfied delight as the World.
TMV’s debut production also benefits from its venue, the UPEI Chaplaincy Centre. This religious setting lends symbolic resonance, and Doran uses the unique location to maximum advantage by deploying his actors throughout the space.
The front, back and sides of the room all see plenty of action, even the staircases, and the actors often interact playfully with the audience. It’s a physically and mentally nimble production, and theatrically agile enough to breathe new life into some very old stories.