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The Saintliness of Margery Kempe

Story of the 14th century British “mystic” generally credited with having written the first autobiography in English.

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Jason O’Connell and Andrus Nichols (foreground) with Michael Genet, Timothy Doyle and Thomas Sommo in a scene from “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

The bright red program cover for The Saintliness of Margery Kempe does nothing to prepare you for the drab and colorless play you are about to see. It comes as even more of a surprise if you know that Margery Kempe was a 14th century British “mystic,” generally credited with having written the first autobiography in English–which seems like the premise for an intriguing play.

But as written by John Wulp, directed by Austin Pendleton, and enacted by Andrus Nichols, Margery Kempe proves to be a hateful character: a vain and haughty whore who keeps alternating between seeing herself as she is and insisting she’s a religious saint.

What’s more, the peripatetic saga introduces us to far too many characters to ever keep track of. To add that the nine-member cast each plays any number of them only adds to the confusion. And then, there’s the confusion of the characters’ names. Consider: Michael Genet plays Virgil Cicero Tubbs, Bishop Alnewyk, Rumsey Goodfellow, Leader of the Prophets and Forbearance; and Timothy Doyle plays Robert of Caistor, Timothy Pounce, Gambol Sheets, The Broken-Backed Man, John of Wyreham, and Endurance.

Pippa Pearthree, Andrus Nichols and Jason O’Connell in a scene from “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The cast list in the program reads more like a medieval phone-directory–even if there were no phones in the Middle Ages–than it does a dramatis personae. And then there’s what happens to the characters during the course of the play which is as hard to say as it is to remember all of their names, let alone pronounce them.

An “Author’s Note” in the program tells us that The Saintliness of Margery Kempe was first put on in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1958, and “a vastly revised version” then ran Off Broadway the following year. To also read that director Pendleton chose the original, Cambridge version for today’s production helps understand why it was “vastly” altered before appearing in New York in 1959.

In the first of countless scenes, a shrill and irate Margery is sweeping briskly with a makeshift broom, as she tells her husband John (Jason O’Connell), “Damn God,” and “I’m leaving you.” She also leaves her six children behind as she sets out to create a new life for herself. To add that her children are named Felicity, Reverence, Patience, Hope, Endurance, and Forbearance, should begin to suggest what Marjorie Kempe is: a medieval “Everywoman” play–even if Margery herself is more like no woman than everywoman.

Timothy Doyle and Andrus Nichols in a scene from “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

By the time her husband and children have found Margery, she’s bought a good-for-nothing brewery from Virgil Cicero Tubbs that turns out “stale” beer. Thus she turns to her dichotomous mission to become a saint when she’s more aligned with the devil.

Featuring little more than a wooden table and benches, a wagon and barrel, a wisp of a potted tree, ladder and chair, the bare minimum of a set has been designed by the playwright. The more effective costumes have been designed by Barbara A. Bell and the busy lighting is by Jennifer Tipton and Matthew Richards. But in the end, it’s hard not to ask, to what purpose?

The Saintliness of Margery Kempe (through August 26, 2018)

Perry Street Theatre Company

The Duke on 42nd Street Theatre, 229 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit http://www.tickets.dukeon42.org

Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including an intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (78 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

1 Comment on The Saintliness of Margery Kempe

  1. Nancy Brenner // July 20, 2018 at 8:52 pm // Reply

    I thought it was great, very funny, and wonderfully acted. I laughed – and I rarely do. Would have been good if slightly shorter

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