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.
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.
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