Controversy swirls around the biblical woman Mary Magdalene. Was she the wife of Jesus? Or was she merely a repentant prostitute, showing us how a sinner can be redeemed by following Jesus? Or was she both sinner and saint?
Mary was allegedly born in the seaside city of Magdala, hence the origin of her name, Magdalene or Magdalena, in Spanish. Magdala was famous for salting or processing fish, near the Sea of Galilee, its Aramaic translation is “tower of fish”.
In the play, last week’s entry in Teatro de la Luna’s Magic Equador Festival, two puzzling props are spotlighted in a block of white light– a large hour glass and long-stem red roses splayed out on the floor, as if spilled from a vase. The hour glass represents the seamless shifts in time, from ancient to modern. One moment we will be in ancient, Biblical times just after the death of Jesus Christ. The next moment we will be thrust into a contemporary time frame.
Lights come up on a square-shaped, shallow boat. Mary Magdalene (Juana Estrella) in black leotard, is curled up under a net, as if she’s a caught fish. “I am Mary of Magdala…..Mary Magdalene….the woman erased,” she says. From the moment Estrella staggers into rising, her legs seemly gripped with cramp, her hands stretched out, it is as if she’s groping for life after 20 centuries of machismo suppression, we are transported into a magnificent tour-de-force performance.
Estrella as Mary makes the compelling argument that Mary Magdalene was the most devoted, powerful disciple of all. Not only was she one of the first women, (in the New Testament book of Luke) to visit the tomb and announce the Good News that Jesus has risen from the dead; but also Estrella as the narrator gives Mary the present-day Good News, that she got tickets to a concert staged by Marc Anthony, a top selling salsa, rock artist. It’s an abrupt, jarring time change that elicited a hearty chuckle from the audience.
With her black hair tangled over her face, Mary tells the story of her ancient ancestors, based on the Dead Sea Scrolls of Naj-Hammadi. Jewish rabbis, more than 30 years old were required to be married. The text goes on to tell of the infamous prostitute who was the “companion,” of Jesus, a word in Aramaic that translates as “wife.” So Estrella, now an evening journalist 2,000 years ago, extrapolates and puts a sensational “spin” on the story. Jesus cast out seven demons from Mary of Magdala, and allegedly made her his wife.
But what Mary has to say is more important than whether or not she is the bride of Jesus. And that’s Estrella’s focus. Mary remembers Jesus telling her that his pain during crucifixion, horrific as it is, is relatively “…..quick, yours is slow, little by little, they will erase you, my Magdalene, they’ll make you disappear and there won’t be anything to do about it.” And that is the terrible irony of Mary’s living on with loss and grief.
So why does Mary have to be erased? First, lighting designer Gary Hauptman projected an illuminated cross on the black backdrop curtain, for the reenactment of the crucifixion. Estrella is on her knees, at the foot of the Cross, center stage, facing the audience, as Jesus is crucified. Then she laments: “I was feeling the pain in my chest …..no greater pain could exist than the one I was feeling, because I didn’t want to live without him, because there was nothing, nothing is nothing.” The lit cross disappears. But later, Jesus came to her in her sleep and tells her he is alive. And he smiled and told her to go on living. This sequence was highly effective, the most emotionally moving part of Mary’s monologue as Mary. I wept.
Yet the question of why Mary has to be disappeared lingers. In the second highpoint sequence, Estrella, bent over like an old man, pantomimes and impersonates Peter, who later became a saint. Evidently Mary got too powerful, we deduce, as we listen. Her greatest adversary is Peter, the weak disciple who denied Jesus three times when the cock crowed. Yet it is Peter who confronts and usurps Mary Magdalena’s powerful position as the first person to see Jesus resurrected. Peter, Mary’s arch rival, is competing for power in the Church, for immortality. The church, he tells Mary, will not build itself up in the name of Mary. “…. it will be built up in my name, for I am the Rock.” And the usurpation of male dominance begins.
“See, Mary, the people don’t need truths, they need a God, the people are weak.” So Peter chooses to leave out women. And Mary is cast out to sea in a boat, a punt, square boat without oars against the nothingness of the dark night. And Peter evolves into the Pope who only comes out onto his balcony on Tuesdays. This sequence is laden with powerful, dramatic irony.
Yet Mary fights back. Feisty, she wants the world to know that there are manuscripts, “I even had a gospel,” she says, “…and one day after twenty centuries, one of my manuscripts is going to be found and I’ll no longer be the erased woman.” (Among the Gnostic gospels, there is a Gospel according to Mary Magdalene, the apostle, a devoted follower of Christ.) She was the first witness to see the risen Christ, to tell the other disciples that Jesus was alive, resurrected. He had to be alive for her because she preferred him alive. The cult of the matriarch, female power of rebirth was alive. But the male hierarchy had to squelch it, suppress what really happened, distort the story to their liking. So Mary has to be a condemned as a bad woman, “….to be erased from all history books, written by men, because history has been told by the winners…..” If she was more she could be a threat. So the men in power “…. made me disappear, I was reduced to a repentant prostitute.”
Juana Estrella is riveting, enacting Mary Magdalene with a triumphant, uplifting spirit. Her Mary cannot be diminished or wiped out. The great painters, like Leonardo di Vinci, Botticelli, Fra Angelico (the great altar painter), Georges de La Tour (who painted the Penitent Magdalene), and the many other Renaissance painters, immortalized Mary Magdalene. So, ironically, Mary cannot be forgotten. Funny one-liners are sprinkled throughout: “Who do you think polished the silver for the Last Supper?” And most of the allusions are universal, like the wonderful metaphor about being the “erased woman,” written about by male scribes as the fallen woman, the outcast, the prostitute.
Some in the audience remembered Juana Estrella as triple-playing all the mad Joans of Spanish history in Loca La Juana/That Crazy Joan in the XVII International Festival of Hispanic Theater in 2014 when Estrella depicted Joanna of Castile, Joan of Arc, and a rarely acknowledged, legendary 9th century A.D. female Pope Joan.
Laudable as this performance is, there are glaring weaknesses in Viviana Cordero’s script. Some references are too obscure, local to Ecuador. Who is Hipatia? Is this a reference to the Ecuadoran pop singer, named Hipatia, who represents fusion of tribal rhythms and pop music? In Greek history, about 400 A.D. Hipatia was an extremely gifted Greek mathematician and astronomer, the head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria, Egypt, who seems to be “erased” by history. Is that why Hipatia is mentioned? We are expected to recognize such scholarly references, but explanation of the relevance would help. The narration tumbles out in pell-mell, stream-of-consciousness style that is difficult to follow in English or in Spanish; thanks to the superb translation skills of Marcela Ferlita, the story makes sense.
But there are beautiful moments that echo the Song of Solomon, that Old Testament book of poetry that celebrates sexual love. And the ending climax of Estrella’s monologue, “……I am the scandalous woman and the magnificent one,” brought the audience I was in to a standing ovation.
This play has closed but the Magical Ecuador Festival continues this weekend: May 15, 16, 8 p.m., May 17, 3 p.m. with Juan Estrella professional magician and illusionist in Mi Show de Magia para niños/My Family Magic Show. Then on Saturday, May 23, 8 p.m., a tribute concert of “Boleros Honoring Julio Jaramillo,” will represent Ecuadoran romantic music.
Running Time: One hour with no intermission. Performed in Spanish with English dubbing through headsets by Marcela Ferlita.
Maria Magdalena, la mujer borrada/Mary Magdalene, the woman erased, written and directed by Viviana Cordero . Starring Juana Estrella . Produced by ProduccionesJE for Teatro de la Luna’s Ecuador Magico/Magic Ecuador Festival . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.