Mythmaking is a powerful tool for storytelling, cultural preservation, and transmitting knowledge and wisdom. It is a dynamic, ongoing process that shapes and reflects the beliefs and values of societies throughout history. Myths are deliberate constructions of stories to promote a particular view of events that may or may not have happened.
The Jester’s Wife, written and directed by T.J. Elliott, is a fanciful attempt at reconstructing the source of the myth of Dymphna, a legendary medieval Irish saint who is considered the patron saint of mental illness. In telling the tale’s origins, two characters create the framework what is to become the myth, and the third offers editorial commentary on their effort.
While it is an intriguing idea to show how legendary myths were often created, this show does not measure up. The primary issue is the lack of a compelling interaction between the Jester and his Wife, leading to the ending, leading to the creation of the story of Saint Dymphna.
The first account of Saint Dymphna was written in the 13th Century. It told of a young, 14-year-old Irish princess, her priest confessor, two servants, and a jester escaping from the clutches of her father, a king, and his incestuous desires for his daughter Dymphna. He was the leader of an Irish petty kingdom who, after his wife died, began an unsuccessful search for a new one. During this search, he began to desire his daughter, who looked like her mother. To escape his advances, Dymphna, having taken a vow to remain chaste, escapes, with her entourage, to Gheel in what is now Belgium. Her father eventually tracks her down and kills her and her priest confessor.
Elliott uses the death of Dymphna as the focal point for her story. Since nothing was written about the Jester after Dymphna’s death, Elliot uses him as the starting point for the tale, adding a wife and a stranger. The interaction between the Jester (Steve Weatherbee), who is fanciful and full of himself, and the Jester’s Wife (Emma Taylor Miller), a pragmatic, earthy healer, is the catalyst for the creation of the myth. The third character, the Stranger (Xander Jackson), provides a contrasting element to the interactions between the Jester and his wife.
The play opens with a Prologue beautifully delivered by Jackson in an engaging, light-hearted, and masterful manner that gives promise as to what is to follow. He sets the stage for the events leading up to the creation of the myth by telling us of the killing of Dymphna and the priest.
As the Stranger exits, there are shouts and screams from outside what is supposed to be a cave with rough walls and different floor levels, the idea of which is lost by the fact that the set is painted a bright white. The Jester enters in a state of near hysteria, scrambling for a place to hide. He grabs a blanket from the floor and covers himself.
Shortly after, the Jester’s Wife enters. She is trying to hide when she sees the Jester under a blanket. Her mood instantly changes from fear to irritation as she confronts the cowering Jester for not helping her escape the killings. It is the beginning of the back and forth between the Jester and his Wife in trying to understand the events that happened outside of their cave home and now hiding place. Their interactions lay the groundwork for creating the Myth of Saint Dymphna.
The character of the Stranger appears midway in the show as a disoriented, disturbed person ranting about “God and Demons” while dancing wildly. The Wife realizes that the man is suffering from a mental disorder probably brought on by eating tainted food. She creates a potion and administers it to the Stranger. He staggers outside of the cave and collapses. The Jester and his Wife go to sleep, relieved by his absence and exhausted by the day’s events.
Upon waking, they discover the Stranger in the cave with a bag of food, apparently cured of what ailed him. He appears well-educated since he can speak Latin but cannot remember who he is. The appearance of the Stranger injects dramatic energy into the play that is missing before his arrival. From this point, the creation of the Dymphna’s myth begins in earnest. He tells the Jester and his Wife he fell into the blood of the slain princess and, when he awoke, went into the village of Gheel, sane and rational, to buy food. Upon seeing him cured, the local priest declared that a miracle had been caused by the blood of Dymphna and organized the villagers to come to the site of her death and pray. Upon hearing this, the Jester hits on the idea of creating a play to show Dymphna as a holy person with healing powers and present it to the townsfolk when they arrive. The three characters go about creating the play.
The Jester’s Wife explores several themes, mainly how myths are often created. Through the interactions of the Jester and his Wife, Elliot also shows how women were and are marginalized by men. The Jester speaks of her being suspected of being a witch because of her midwifery and healing skills. Elliott points out how cowardly and manipulative he and other men are in the face of social evils. It is disappointing that these ideas are not presented more effectively.
There are distractions from the main themes. Jackson’s appearance as the addled Stranger, dancing wildly, goes on too long and lacks a specific choreography to make it fit better with the scene and the set. The set design by Gloria Novi is problematic since it is supposed to be a cave but is stark white and looks like the interior of a house in a Star Wars film. It is constructed in a way that makes some of the dialogue difficult to hear. The only character that could be consistently heard clearly was the Stranger, with Jackson solidly projecting his voice. Weatherbee and Miller do their best with the sound limitations, but the movement required of their characters make it difficult. At times, they sound like they were speaking in an empty room.
The script calls for a cauldron over the ashes of a fire, but the prop used is a small pot hanging over a pile of sticks and pallets representing beds with blankets are missing. The costume design by Elena Vannoni works for the Stranger and the Jester’s Wife’s costumes, but the Jester’s costume, although appearing as a traditional outfit, is ill-fitting, and the classic “cap and bells” hat is overblown to the point of distraction. William Brown’s lighting design is effective in supporting the action.
The Jester’s Wife (through October 8, 2023)
Knowledge Workings Theater LLC
The 36th Street Theatre, 312 West 36th Street (4th Floor), in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes without intermission