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Photo by Andrew Alexander, courtesy of Evolution Theatre

So Much Theatre: Evolution Theatre’s Mary Magdalene and [boxhead] double-bill

By Andrew Snowdon on April 22, 2012

Evolution Theatre’s double-bill of two very different plays (Berni Stapleton’s Mary Magdalene and Adventures in Sobriety and [boxhead] by Darren O’Donnell) is challenging for both the performers and the audience. Whether or not you’re ready for the challenge will very much determine how much you enjoy both productions.

In the single-performer Mary Magdalene and Adventures in Sobriety, Nancy Kenny is the famous former lover of Jesus Christ who stumbles into a modern-day Alcoholics Anonymous meeting after wandering the earth in a boozy wash for nearly 2,000 years. As she struggles to deserve the kindness of her sponsor and crawl her way to redemption, she reminisces about her life with Jesus, revises inaccuracies in the Stations of the Cross, and recites sermons on the rules and etiquette of drinking and sobriety.

Nancy Kenny steps beyond her comic core to present a portrait of a person who is both pathetic and powerful in her passion. The slapstick physicality of certain moments clearly owes a lot to director Andy Massingham. Staging the play in and around the audience is entirely appropriate to the character’s instability, and although it’s a bit of a pain to swivel around to see her in the different stage areas, it keeps interest and momentum going.

Mary Magdalene and Adventures in Sobriety relies heavily on a Catholic context, and to the degree that it does, cannot therefore be universal. It’s not quite esoteric; the level of familiarity required is not far above that necessary to get Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. Evolution Theatre does tend to program plays that rely on Catholic symbolism for their effect (Little Martyrs, and to some degree Ex Cathedra, the second play in The Lavender Railroad). It’s possible that this narrows the audience they reach. On the other hand, it’s unusual outside of Francophone theatre and so the potential of attracting an audience with an Anglophone Catholic cultural background is there. Overall, Mary Magdalene and Adventures in Sobriety is an interesting piece of speculative fiction that takes a realistic look at addiction through a very particular filter, and also examines the way we perceive history through the filter of myth.

Then, in [boxhead], a young geneticist (Stewart Matthews) with a box on his head—quite literally, a cardboard box —at the end of his rope, decides to make a clone of himself (Chris Bedford). Under the watchful, interfering eye(lessness) of two noncorporeal narrators (also voiced—in real-time—by Stewart Matthews and Chris Bedford), they set about trying to get the boxes off of their heads, trying to clone time itself, and trying to discover why they can’t conceive a child together. Meanwhile, the narrators desperately need something from the audience, and are willing to resort to extreme measures to obtain it.

The two actors look like bent stick figures in lab coats with no facial features; in other words, exactly like xkcd characters come to life. Matthews immediately establishes Dr. Actions as a stridently-pitched Marvin the Paranoid Android, inspiring sympathy while remaining ridiculous. Bedford is more subdued, which over time becomes a relief from Matthews’s intensity. The narrators have personalities reminiscent of GLaDOS, the disembodied, omnipresent computer voice from the Portal series of video games. There’s a lot of dialogue that takes place in total darkness; it’s too bad that the vocal processing often distorts the words. On one level, [boxhead] has four characters; on another, it is a gruelling monologue arranged for two actors, who need to be perfectly synchronized and locker-room-comfortable with each other, and Bedford and Matthews are. That the audience is an audience is not only acknowledged, it is played upon. One could say that this play not only breaks the fourth wall, it is about the internal fourth wall.

There is nudity in [boxhead] (sorry for those of you hoping the sign outside meant Nancy Kenny would be working blue); I would hesitate to call it gratuitous nudity. Is nudity gratuitous when its very gratuitousness is the point? I would leave it as a surprise but it’s neither brief nor incidental and deserves mention, if not quite a warning. Much of [boxhead], in fact, needs to be left a surprise and is not brief. It’s never boring, but according to my tailbone it is long; it’s impossible to pin down the exact running time because that depends to a large degree on the audience.

The problem is, despite the tremendous value for money that $25 for two shows offers, these particular two shows do not belong together. [boxhead] is more than capable of standing on its own, and Mary Magdalene and Adventures in Sobriety is too substantial to be merely an opening act for a full-blown play. If anything, it should be in a double-bill with a piece of similar scope, style, and subject—as Evolution did admirably with The Lavender Railroad. Even after making allowances, these two plays are for vastly different audiences. That’s not to say that people aren’t generally broad-minded enough to appreciate both—I hope they are—but most are going to find one suits them orders of magnitude more than the other. When I think of who I would privately recommend see one or the other, I come up with entirely different sets of people. The crossover group would be disaffected (or open-minded devout) Catholics with a craving for surrealistic comedy.

Mary Magdalene and Adventures in Sobriety is raw, emotional, mature, and real; [boxhead] is stylized, philosophical, puerile (in a good way), and fantastically absurd. They’re each compelling in diametrically opposed ways. The only thing tying them together (besides the Serenity Prayer) is the theme of eternal loneliness and isolation. Appropriately enough, they belong together in the same way as people who end up sharing a seat on a crowded bus: uncomfortably.

Mary Magdalene and Adventures in Sobriety and [boxhead] double bill runs until April 28. Tickets are $20-$25.