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A CurtainUp Review
The Saintliness of Margery Kempe
Kempe was a brewer in Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn), a commercial town in Norfolk, approximately 100 miles north of London, where her father had been mayor. The mother of 14 children, Margery claimed that Jesus appeared to her while she was suffering from what now would probably be diagnosed as post-partum depression. Unable to read or write, she dictated her memoir to a series of scribes.
The Book of Margery Kempe, though "written" by Margery, is a rowdy, passionate, third-person narrative of a woman for whom "the fire of love" burns "so fervently . . . in her heart" that she cries, roars, weeps and falls to the ground when she enters the churchyard of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Leaving behind spouse and offspring, Margery embarks on travels that culminate in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
In the 1950s, playwright John Wulp concocted a theatrical picaresque, The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, inspired by the Book but devoid of reverence for Margery herself. Wulp's mordant comedy was produced Off-Broadway in 1959 with Frances Sternhagen in the title role. When it closed precipitously, the play was forgotten until director Austin Pendleton rediscovered and resolved to revive it. Pendleton's staging, produced by Perry Street Theatre Company, is now on view at the Duke on 42nd Street.
Wulp's Margery is grandiose, self-righteous, and pushy — imagine Thornton Wilder's Dolly Levi as a religious fanatic. "I have been sent to you by God," Margery proclaims when she meets someone from whom she wants a big favor. "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."
Pendleton has wisely recruited Andrus Nichols to play the insufferable protagonist. Nichols, a founding member of the innovative Off-Broadway company Bedlam, was the sensible Elinor in that troupe's Sense and Sensibility. From her long run as the title character in Bedlam's production of Saint Joan, Nichols knows a thing or two about how to play overbearing religiosity. Her performance as Margery is downright mesmeric.
Wulp's script, though admirably literate, is overlong and, in places, overwritten; but the scenes in Act Two when Margery travels to Jerusalem are worth the price of admission. And difficult as it may be to take your eyes off Nichols' agreeably disagreeable Margery, there are several other performances here that deserve attention.
Jason O'Connell — notable as the author and sole performer of The Dork Knight (produced by the Abingdon Theatre Company in 2017) — is hilarious as the put-upon Friar Bonadventure with the horrifying responsibility of guiding Margery and a flock of squabbling travelers from Yarmouth to the Holy Land. O'Connell's comedic style is often broad but never sullied by schtick; his performance is intricate, detailed, and rich in verisimilitude.
Pippa Pearthree plays a rich widow angling for a new spouse while making the Jerusalem pilgrimage to rescue her late husband's soul from Purgatory. In a knock-down, drag-out show-down between this shrill, bossy widow and Nichols' unsaintly Margery, Pearthree out-margerys Margery, producing the highpoint of this production's hilarity. (Pearthree, an underutilized treasure of the New York stage, was in the original cast of A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room in 1982 and, the same year, played Ophelia to Diane Venora's Hamlet under the direction of Joseph Papp.)
The other pilgrims — Vance Quincy Barton as Sir Percy De Saint-Juste, Thomas Sommo as his servant Rip, and Timothy Doyle as a "bald-headed, bandy-legged little man" named Gambol Sheets — round out a six-person ensemble that performs what amounts to a play within the play. (The remaining three actors, Michael Genet, Ginger Grace, and LaTonya Borsay, who appear in other parts of the play, are excellent, as well.)
Margery Kempe might be improved if the curtain came down when the pilgrims disband in Rome. Alas, the journey must continue until . . . well, let's not admit any narrative spoilers here.
The production has been effectively designed on an Off-Broadway budget by a distinguished team that includes Jennifer Tipton and Matthew Richards (lighting), Ryan Rumery (sound and original music), and Barbara Bell (costumes). The scenic design is by Mr. Wulp, who is now 90 years old. (He is a 1978 Tony Award winner as producer of Dracula and he was nominated for a 1979 Tony for the sets of The Crucifer of Blood.)
Back in 1959, when Frances Sternhagen and her cast-mates Gene Hackman and Charles Nelson Reilly frolicked Off-Broadway in Wulp's play, the peripatetic mystic from Bishop's Lynn wasn't yet well known. As articles, books, and doctoral dissertations about her have accumulated over the past half century, Margery has become a darling of the academy. In April 2018, for instance, University College, Oxford, hosted a Kempe symposium that featured papers with titles such as "Queer Eye for God: Reading Margery Kempe as Female Masculine" and "Clad in Flesch [sic] and Blood: Sartorial Body and Female Self-Fashioning in The Book of Margery Kempe."
Reviewing the original production of The Saintliness of Margery Kempe in the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson observed that, in the memoirs, Margery "is a blubbering bore" but, on stage, she's enlivened by Wulp's "refreshing sense of humor." That assessment remains fair. At two and a quarter hours in length, this comedy may be overlong, but it's dollars to doughnuts that Wulp's script and Pendleton's production afford a far more invigorating experience than any of those academic papers at the Kempe symposium in Oxford.
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The Saintliness of Margery Kempe by John Wulp
Directed by Austin Pendleton.
Cast: Andrus Nichols (Margery Kempe), Vance Quincy Barton (The Man in Black, The Friar, Joseph Pinch, Sir Percy De Saint-Juste), LaTonya Borsay (Patience, Mistress Prattle, Mistress Spiteful), Timothy Doyle (Robert of Caistor, Timothy Pounce, Gambol Sheetss, The Broken-Backed Man, John of Wyreham, Endurance), Michael Genet (Virgil Cicero Tubbs, Bishop Alnewyk, Rumsey Goodfellow, Leader of the Prophets, Forbearance), Ginger Grace (Mistress Wishful, Dame Vexation, The Prostitute, Hope), Jason O’Connell (John Kempe, Peter Poke, Friar Bonadventure, The Thief), Pippa Pearthree (Mistress Bethany Fribley, Dame Rumor, Felicity), Thomas Sommo (Pegasus, Master Aleyn, Rip)
Scenic design by John Wulp
Lighting design by Jennifer Tipton and Matthew Richards
Costume design by Barbara Bell
Sound design & original music by Ryan Rumery
Production Stage Manager: J.P. Elins
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes Preseted by Perry Street Theatre Company and Jonathan Demar in association with Frederick M. Zollo & Diane Procter Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street); www.margerykempe.com
From 7/05/18; opening 7/12/18; closing 8/26/18
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 8/10/18 press performance
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