Speaking words of wisdom, Mother Mary testifies at ACT

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Seana McKenna stars as Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Colm Tóibín’s solo play, Testament at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Photos by Kevin Berne

Has any mother ever inspired so much and such varied art?

Colm Tóibín’s Testament, now at American Conservatory Theater, is another in a long line of interpretations of Mary, mother of Jesus. In is version, which started life as a Dublin play, then became a novel before being turned into a different play on Broadway last year, Toibin is interested in the humanity of Mary, a mother first and foremost, and a citizen caught up – rather unwillingly – in a dangerous rebellion.

Directed by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff and starring revered Canadian actor Seana McKenna (previously seen at ACT in Napoli! and Phèdre), this Testament is steeped in grief and fear and anger. A mother watched her son carried away by a movement she didn’t really understand and was, she tells us frankly, didn’t like. The earnestness of the followers, she tells us, bored her.

In his taut script, Tóibín creates a world of tension outside Mary’s door. The cultural and political shifts that led to her son’s execution are still raging. While she copes with the loss of her son, she’s still dealing with fallout of the movement in the form of the brutes and the notetakers who plague her life and ceaselessly record (and warp) her story. There’s a real sense of the modern world in this tension in the form of government brutality, paranoia, extremity and danger. But there’s also uncertainty in who are the bad guys and who are the good guys – it doesn’t seem, at least from this perspective, that there are any good guys, and that’s a grim notion.

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McKenna exhibits a lovely grace in her performance, and that underscores everything else we see in Mary: strength, ferocity, heartbroken anguish. McKenna is just a few degrees larger than life to fill the cavernous Geary Theater with her strong voice, but she’s also recognizably human – an older woman coping as best she can, sharing her deepest fears and darkest recollections in a moment of solitude (with an audience). Set and lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols surrounds McKenna with a towering skeletal structure and giant shards of what looks like shattered plastic – a harsh landscape for an agonizing story (though mostly passive the sets and lights do become active toward the 80-minute show’s end, creating the unfortunate image of an edgy dance club).

Even at its most intense – the recounting of the actual crucifixion is almost unbearable – Testament keeps a certain distance. Mary’s is a story full of emotion, but McKenna is not weeping and wailing like a Trojan woman. She’s pretty self-contained, which somehow makes her story even darker and angrier and sadder. If she’s closed off at all, it’s probably an act of self-preservation.

Testament pissed off people when it was in New York, and perhaps anybody’s interpretation of this story that doesn’t follow the standard line is subject to anger. But really, Tóibín’s take on it is compassionate and relatable and contemporary. It all comes down to a mother grieving the son whose life and work ultimately challenged and upset her. She’s in the long process of reconciling her feelings and history and the aftermath of an uprising. Amid all of that, she has people telling her that her son died for the sins of all people? The look on McKenna’s face when faced with that notion is remarkable. This Mary is not some passive portrait of motherly beneficence etched in stone or in strokes of a paintbrush. She is flesh and blood and has an extraordinary tale to tell.

[bonus video]
Probably my favorite piece of Mary-related Mary art is Patty Griffin’s song “Mary” from her 1998 Flaming Red album. For this live version, Griffin is joined by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.

Colm Tóibín’s Testament continues through Nov. 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415.749.2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Greed not so good in ACT’s Napoli!

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Members of the large cast of Napoli! at American Conservatory Theater enjoy conversation and black market coffee as World War II rages on outside their doors. Below: Seana McKenna is Amalia and Marco Barricelli is Gennaro, her husband. Photos by Kevin Berne

Scuzza me, but you see back in old Napoli that’s…

In the play Napoli!, it’s not so much “amore” as it is “controlling the market.” American Conservatory Theater’s new translation of Eduardo De Filippo’s 1945 play eschews the Italian title, Napoli milionaria!, in favor of translators Linda Alper and Beatrice Basso’s choice, Napoli!. The exclamation point might suggest a musical (Hello, Mussolini!), but it’s probably meant more ironically. Naples during World War II, especially before the allies arrived, was a pretty dismal, bombed-out, typhus-infested place with no shortage of shortages.

Neither a chest-beating drama nor an uproarious comedy, Napoli! resides in an in-between zone, where warmth and realism count for a lot, and the more you identify with the characters, the more you get out of the production.

Director Mark Rucker does not have an easy time making the Geary feel like a realistic family home. Set designer Erik Flatmo has done what he could to reduce the playing space to something resembling a gritty Neapolitan dwelling for the Jovine family, but intimacy is sacrificed for the glory of the Geary.

As the heads of the family, Seana McKenna as Amalia and Marco Barricelli as Gennaro give big but grounded performances that generate the two-hour show’s only warmth and intermittent heat. They are surrounded by a large, genial cast that occasionally overplays its comic hand. Anthony Fusco is notable as a beleaguered citizen who turns to Amalia, a whiz at working the black market, and reveals the shifting moral ground beneath Amalia’s feet.

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Napoli! has something to say about greed (especially about wartime profiteering) at the expense of community (and family), but it comes through in a way that insinuates gender is a factor. Amalia, as the wife, shouldn’t be the one making so much money from the black market coffee and pasta and cheese that she sells and withholds to drive up the price. Her out-of-work husband becomes the play’s moral conscience, but we don’t see him refusing to eat the pasta or hear him complain that his children are being fed and clothed while others in town go hungry and lose their homes. Would the play even exist if the tables were turned and Genarro was working the black market and Amalia was percolating the black market coffee?

The play ends before we see if Amalia can somehow check her avarice and put her clearly excellent business skills to use in a way that isn’t damaging to her neighbors or her family. But the play doesn’t end before she is shamed for surviving and thriving, which doesn’t quite seem fair to Amalia, who is not a villain.

While Genarro wants to revel in the horrors of the war, his wife, children and friends want to move on, almost as if it had never happened. Apparently we’re meant to think that such moving on is a bad thing, an inability to face and deal with reality. But I certainly wouldn’t want to spend a birthday party hearing about corpses in ditches and German atrocities. There’s a time and a place.

Amid occasional farce (an attempted police raid on Amalia’s black market stores generates some chuckles) and family drama (American soldiers are dogs) Napoli! ties up its family crises quite tidily but leaves its judgements hanging uneasily in the air.

[bonus interviews]
I talked with Napoli! stars Seana McKenna and Marco Barricelli for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

American Conservatory Theater’s Napoli! continues through March 9 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.