Lucas Hnath in The Wall Street Journal

Confessions of a Saint


Originally published in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

April 22, 2013

Fiona Shaw in "The Testament of Mary" by Colm Toibin. Photograph by Paul Kolnik
Fiona Shaw in “The Testament of Mary” by Colm Toibin. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Each week in Curtain Raisers, we invite a local theater artist to attend a show of his or her choosing and discuss the work. On Thursday, playwright Lucas Hnath went to the Walter Kerr Theatre to see a preview of Colm Tóibín’s “The Testament of Mary,” a one-character play about the mother of Jesus Christ directed by Deborah Warner and starring Fiona Shaw. Mr. Hnath’s plays include “Isaac’s Eye,” “Death Tax” and “The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith.” His new work, “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney,” will open April 30 at Soho Rep.

He calls it stereoscopic theatricality. “It’s a terribly pretentious term,” Lucas Hnath said. “But if you tell people, ‘Here’s a person you already know,’ and then you do some things contrary to the image they hold in their heads, there’s a dissonance. And if you can get audiences to hold both of these images in their mind at once, something exiting and mind-expanding and psychically beneficial happens. It’s uncanny and titillating all at once.”

Calling the effect “stereoscopic” refers to the optical instrument through which two pictures of the same object—nearly identical but disparate in certain physical detail—are viewed, one by each eye, producing a single image that approaches 3D. “The Testament of Mary” achieves that third dimension. In the play, adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novella of the same name, Mary, mother of Jesus, deep in grief, tells her own version of her son’s rise and fall, and it’s not a version we’ve heard before.

“We tend to see Mary as a passive figure,” Mr. Hnath said. “This quickly smashes that.”

She smokes. She drinks. She sneers. She ridicules. “She’s an angry person and that’s exciting. She’s a badass.”

The target for much of her venom is her son’s disciples, who have been at her door, invading her grief, asserting their own accounts of her son’s (and her) life story. The intrusion of the disciples, who never actually appear in this one-woman show, is affected obliquely. Before the play begins, with the house lights up, Ms. Shaw takes her place encased in a glass box stage right, dressed more or less like the image of Mary we’ve seen in churches and on candles. Stage left sits an un-caged live hawk. Meanwhile, dozens of audience members, who have been invited to take a gander, mount the stage; they step over props, gawk at Ms. Shaw, fluster the bird and take pictures of themselves and their friends. They’re having a good time.

This is an invasion of a sacred performance space, potentially disrupting the calm of an actress minutes before her tour de force. From Mr. Hnath’s seat, the scene looked vulgar and chaotic. He pointed out, though, that Mary’s rage toward the disciples is made easier for Ms. Shaw by her sitting still for 15 minutes, surrounded by a flock of interloping theatergoers. Once Mary’s monologue begins, and she’s lashing out at the crowds that pervaded her son’s life and death, there’s an uncanny and titillating charge. “It slaps the audience in the face for participating,” he said. In a sense it invites them see themselves stereoscopically—enthusiasts and invaders, both.

Mr. Hnath has explored stereoscopic theatricality in many of his plays, taking figures like Isaac Newton, the Clintons and Anna Nicole Smith, and fictionalizing them to find a new and more humane truth. In his new play, he gives the stereoscopic treatment to Walt Disney, who is often regarded either as sinister or saintly, and renders him somewhere “wildly in between.”

We meet Disney during his last days, as he works to ensure that his legacy remains in tact according to his vision. “It’s a testament,” Mr. Hnath said. “The opening line of the show is, ‘I’m Walt Disney. This is a screenplay I wrote. It’s about me.'”

“The Testament of Mary” and “The Death of Walt Disney” feature central characters obsessively honing and asserting the stories of their lives to an audience that enters the theater with widely held preconceived notions. The dramaturgical connections resound all the more when you learn that Mr. Hnath regularly attended a Pentecostal mega-church while growing up in Orlando. “The stories in the Bible are skeletal, loosely told, with a lot of gaps,” he said. “[‘Testament of Mary’] is more dramaturgically sound.”

Mr. Hnath’s play, though, barrels in the opposite psychological direction. Mary starts in disgust with the audience and ends exorcised, open, her heart beating with ours. She is striving to submit herself to the truth. Disney, on the other hand, begins with a friendly greeting, but as he becomes ever more obsessed with his control of the narrative, he becomes less open with the audience, less appealing. He’s striving to dominate the truth.

Ah, but the truth ought not be dominated! It’s a wild hawk! Ultimately, Mr. Hnath said, “Testament,” like “Disney,” is less a behind-the-scenes glimpse at an icon and more a human story of identity and grief. It’s a bit of a bait and switch. “This play is an occasion to understand something that’s happened to you as well as a larger story that has larger importance to a larger section of the world,” he said. “Maybe that’s why Shakespeare told stories about kings—it’s a quicker buy-in.”

Lucas Hnath (Photograph by Lizzie Simon for The Wall Street Journal)

Lucas Hnath (Photograph by Lizzie Simon for The Wall Street Journal)

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