Maybe you are familiar with the double-edged sword of being Mary Magdalene: She’s a saint who witnessed Jesus Christ and his power both before and after his crucifixion, and she was the first to see his empty tomb. She was part of the inner circle. Yet, through the magic of fake news (courtesy of Pope Gregory), she has sometimes been fixed as a prostitute, although there is nothing in the Bible to really prove that accusation.
So, anyway, this is good to know before you watch Main Street Theater’s The Book of Magdalene, which you can watch online through February 28, and I commend Main Street and all the Houston theaters who are making sure that the show goes on. Not only do they have to deal with local Covid-19 safety protocols, but there is also a whole other layer of rules for onstage safety, which is why you’ll see masks on the actors in some scenes, social distancing, and plexiglass dividing the actors in others. But it’s all good—we all get that as audience members, and often in this play, the characters are divided emotionally anyway while they are speaking over a plastic wall. Makes sense in a weird sort of way.
Playwright Caridad Svich offers a post-catastrophic world in which Magdalene (or “Len,” as she is called sometimes) has a lonely life as a phone sex worker who lives with and cares for “Elder,” an older woman whose relationship with Magdalene is unclear. In any case, they are a sort of family, and Elder is in decline, like everything else. Magdalene, played by Jennifer Wang, in her worn-out clothes and constant despondency, mopes around about, missing her old flame, Ru, and in this dream-like production, I am never quite sure what is a memory, a dream, a desire, or a hallucination. But under Svich’s cynical pen, it doesn’t seem to matter.
This play is really heavy on themes. As in, what is real and what is not? Can we really connect with each other? What is life, Magdalene questions; is she just playing a role or is she really helping others in a small way by being a phone sex worker? That kind of thing. Remember when Holden Caulfield yammered on and on about how everyone is so “phony”? There is a lot of that going on. I would quote some of the lines, but they are pretty accessible and predictable and not that memorable.
And that is my biggest issue with this play: the writing. Yes, there is a glimmer, and I do mean a faint one, of hope and moving on and not being stuck at the end of the play, but for the most part, it really drags. Yes, there are conversations with the other characters, but there is no drama to the conversations most of the time. The Book of Magdalene is more of a long monologue, with the speaker then weirdly slipping into third person to give us some information as if she is an omniscient book narrator so you are all prepared for what the next thing might be for Len when she hangs up that phone and writes off her Johns for good.
The good news, and a great reason to watch this show, is that Pablo Bracho, who plays her client (Len calls him “Suit”), is fascinating in his portrayal of someone who might really be in the throes of a crisis … or not. He might be living in the city, crushed, and struggling, or he might be playing a role just like Len is. Bracho even wears a clown mask at some point as he begs Len to listen to him, although with her hood on and sitting on her stool, she seems more like a sibyl or a sphinx, who either parrots her script in a bored way, or answers in riddles and koans. This all connects with the themes of the play, but it’s not believable. However, Bracho is believable—and everything comes alive when he is on stage. He knows how to time his lines, how to fake an emotion and let the audience know he is faking it or know when he’s not. I wish he had had more lines.
I know it feels like this pandemic has pounded all of us, and I am glad the ending didn’t just, well, end with definite dystopian distress. So, The Book of Magdalene does seem like a play for our current moment. And you can see the debut of Pablo Bracho, something to celebrate—even during Covid.
Thru Feb 28. Pay what you can. Online. More information at mainstreettheater.com.