First Nighter: Fiona Shaw's Miraculous Testament of Mary William Christie's Marvelous David et Jonathas

04/23/2013 03:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013

What Nikos Kazantzakis did to de-sanctify Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, Colm Toibin has done for the Madonna in The Testament of Mary -- with, predictably, the some outraged response from various Catholic Church officials. Who'd think the reaction could be otherwise when, among other revelations in the 80-minute monologue, the immaculate conception is denied outright? Certainly not at a time when Francis I is traditionally conservative.

All the same, Toibin's New Testament revision -- which in a cynical age has effect of a scorching modern poem -- is the occasion of a bravura performance by Fiona Shaw, whom the audience, on entering the Walter Kerr, is invited to view garbed as the Virgin Mary. She sits silently in a tall, transparent box as if she's merely another of the thousands (millions?) of Madonna representations crowding the history of art -- right up to and beyond Chris Ofili's controversial image.

Once the curious have left the stage, Shaw -- beginning the performance proper -- removes the live vulture perched not far from her among the other props (buckets, nails, a tree trunk) scattered on Tom Pye's barren set. Then she removes Mary's more familiar garments to reveal a loose shift, her dressing down symbolizing Toibin's jettisoning the posthumous attributes accorded the historical figure.

Toibin's Mary -- the program says the time is "Now" -- presents herself as a woman living alone on what could be a deserted farm. She reports being regularly hounded by a pair of guards who recount the life that's been ascribed to her, particularly before, during and after the crucifixion. Not only does Mary contradict their accounts, she explicitly insists that. Unable to watch her son dying on the cross, she paid closer attention to a man feeding rabbits into a cage sheltering a carnivorous bird. That diversion ceasing to absorb her, she confesses she stole away with companion Mary (Magdalene? -- it isn't made clear) before Jesus expired.

In addition to disavowing the myths clinging to her, she tells of New Testament events she did witness -- not necessarily on the best terms with her boy. Claiming he didn't speak to her during the wedding at Cana, she goes on to cast doubt on Jesus's having turned water into wine. Prior to that, she criticizes the event involving the deceased Lazarus -- an occurrence at which she also didn't say much to Jesus, although she'd have liked to. Toibin has her remember, "I wanted to tell him that healing the sick belonged to others but that raising the dead belonged to no one. And though others saw it as a miracle, I saw it as the end of everything. They would come for him."

According to a program note, The Testament of Mary marks the 25th anniversary of Shaw's collaboration with director Deborah Warner, a teaming recognized as one of contemporary theater's most important partnerships. Shaw and Warner enhance each other's fearlessness -- and fearlessness is definitely at the angry heart of this piece.

There's nothing Shaw seems reluctant to do while portraying this Biblical mother courage. She's keen-eyed portraying Mary's rejection of any celestial implications of her life and ascension. More blatantly, she waves away the notion of Jesus's being the son of God and outright sloughs off the notion of her son's saving the world.

Not only doesn't Shaw's furious Mary stop short of trying to drive six-inch (or thereabouts) nails into her side -- after compulsively recalling the nails driven into Jesus's wrists -- but in the aftermath of the crucifixion she strips naked to show Mary's eagerness to cleanse herself. Perhaps it's a baptism. If so, it's not one to establish faith in the unexplained but to disavow it, to opt for reality, to come down on the side of what's real, what's tangible, what's in the actual flesh and blood.

(Shaw doesn't have to be working with Warner to get down to the buff. She did a bit of it under Tom Cairns's direction during her appearance last year at London's National in Scenes From an Execution.)

Incidentally, though anyone would think the titles The Testament of Mary and The Book of Mormon aren't ever likely to be linked in the same sentence, they're going to be here. Both are send-ups of how religious beliefs come into being, how they're created by people needing either to provide themselves with balm for life's complexities or to develop strategies to wield power over others. Or both.

Reviewer's note: A spokesperson for the production says the vulture working with Shaw is a "sweet" bird and will eat nothing living, only dead -- like most vultures, apparently. There's no evidence it's included in the proceedings as a comment on critics.

During an interview preceding Sunday's final performance of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's David et Jonathas at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Les Arts Florissants artistic director William Christie indicated that he and the composer are collaborators. He said this without arrogance but simply to define the work he's done solving the puzzle of the Baroque scores he's sought out. For instance, he said some of them often yield only melody lines--not even instruments specified. In other words, what he does is informed guesswork.

The implication is that there's really no way to ascertain whether he's accurately or inaccurately conducting the scores he's restored -- no matter whether composed by Charpentier, Lully, Rameau or Monteverdi. As collaborator, he conducts them so they sound as close as possible to his impressions of how they might have sounded.

Therefore, a reviewer can only state that Christie's orchestra (including recorders and a theorbo) and the characters David and Jonathas, as sung by, respectively, Pascal Charbonneau and Ana Quintans, are a joy to hear. The overall effect is also disturbing in its depiction of the Old Testament friends attempting to keep pure their (physical) love when Jonathas' father, Saul (Neal Davies, also singing with passion), has grown wary of David's presence at court.

But if this David et Jonathas is a joy to hear, it's not much of a joy to behold. Paul Zoller's confining set can be described as a huge pine coffin or an out-sized sauna with the heat turned off. Costume designer Gideon Davey has almost everyone wearing drab clothes that makes them appear to be 1930s-'40s kibbutzniks. Perhaps the point being made is that Jews are as imperiled today as they were then, but it's not an especially illuminating point.