The Tidings Brought to Mary
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 17, 2009
With The Tidings Brought to Mary, The Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre give New York audiences it first look at a Paul Claudel play in more than 20 years. Claudel (brother of the artist Camille Claudel) was a prolific and often adventurous playwright whose work spans the first half of the 20th century. He's regarded as a "Roman Catholic playwright" (that's a direct quote from Siegfried Melchinger's Concise Encyclopedia of Modern Drama; see this Wikipedia article also). Peter Dobbins, director of this production, has told me he considers it a modern Miracle play.
The Tidings Brought to Mary takes place in the early 15th century in France (events of the play happen concurrently with the rise and fall of Joan of Arc). Violaine is the elder daughter of a wealthy French estate owner. In the long prologue that begins the play, we see her with a leper, Pierre De Craon, who has tried to rape her. She forgives him and the scene ends with her kissing him on the mouth.
In the next scenes of the play, we learn that Violaine's father has decided to leave his family to join a crusade in the Holy Land, and that it is his wish that a fine and strapping young man named Jacques Hurey should take over as head of the estate, and marry Violaine. Mara, Violaine's younger sister—as pragmatic as Violaine is spiritual—is in love with Jacques. What develops in Acts I and II is that Violaine lets Jacques know that she has become exposed to leprosy. He drives her away and takes Mara for his bride instead.
The second part of the play (Acts III and IV) take turns that feel surprising—perhaps less so if you fully appreciate that Violaine has, in Melchinger's words, had her annunciation and sanctification as a result of her pity for Pierre and her renunciation of Jacques.
I feel certain that Claudel wants audiences to find in this play an expression of his deep Catholic faith: we are to believe that a miracle occurs. I am personally more inclined to read the piece's themes in a more general way: that sacrifice and devotion and love are necessary for human survival.
Dobbins's realization of this sometimes difficult work is commendable. The simple set, by Czerton Lim, is eloquent and beautiful and serves the piece well. Michael Abrams's lighting equally contributes to the tone.
At the center of the play are the sisters, both expertly performed here by Erin Beirnard (Violaine) and Laura Bozzone (Mara). Beirnard is especially memorable in the second part of the play, conveying Violaine's extraordinary goodness (saintliness?) without affect or comment. Harlan Work offers strong support as the oft-conflicted Jacques. Fine work is also offered by Ross DeGraw and Jenny D. Green as Violaine and Mara's parents.
The prologue—a lengthy 30 minutes—is dense and expository (in terms of both plot and theme); it's a tough entry point for the piece (and it includes some Latin passages that I confess I didn't understand). The rest of the play flows smoothly and compellingly.
Storm and Blackfriars promise more Claudel next season. For students of modern drama, The Tidings Brought to Mary and its successors in this "mini-festival" will expose them to eclectic, interesting work that is rarely attempted on stage.