By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
You don't have to read The DaVinci Code to know that Mary Magdalene got a raw deal. She's been branded a prostitute, Jesus Christ's secret wife, the mother of his child, an adultress, a proto-feminist and a hanger-on.
Two thousand years later, Mary continues to be a source of inspiration to philosophers, writers, filmmakers, musicians and other artists. With so little actually known about her—even the Bible stories she's mentioned in were written decades and centuries after her death and are more metaphor than history—any telling of her story ends up reflecting the individual creator's agenda.
This new musical about her, Magdalene, uses the same old suppositions, but employs them to get people talking about male power and the effects of sexual violence on women. In its West Coast premiere—staged at Rock Harbor, a local evangelical church—the production is not without serious flaws, but congrats are in order to a religious institution for theatrically representing such difficult, even progressive subject matter. Rape and its repercussions and daring to discuss God's seeming deaf ear to human misery are rarities in any church I've ever been to.
Amy Maier's rock-grotto/sand scenic design looks cool enough but limits the actors' ability to do much more than walk in circles around it or risk kicking up dust in the small theater. David "Gurn" Kaniski's elegant lighting design paints the stage with vivid shadow and color; his inventive projections are a real asset to the show, and I wish they weren't as underutilized as they are here.
Magdalene's catchy, pop-inflected score (by Chris Eaton, Michele Pillar and Allison M. Allen) embraces musical styles as diverse as rock, jazz and reggae. While slightly derivative—when teenage Mary (a show-stealing Chelsea Brannon) and her betrothed pledge their eternal love in "A Whole Life," it sounds suspiciously like "A Whole New World" from Aladdin—it's also emotionally powerful and has a palpable sense of joy and humor about it. Despite a muddy mix on the microphones, musical director Rob Blaney and his band are tight and lively, without overpowering the voices onstage.
Allen's pat script is the biggest disappointment. Badly in need of several rewrites, it short-changes Magdalene's conversion from cynical prostitute to Christian apologist, suggesting that all she had to do was meet Christ for her horror-story life to be forgotten. There's a gang rape, alcoholism, greed, spiritual rejection and a broken heart to contend with, but even Jesus indicates she should get over her problems and move on. Hardly the most sensitive advice we'd hope to hear from God, but ironically consistent with the play's view of all men as negligent, ineffectual or evil.
The script also skates over the idea that for faith to last, it should be a thoughtful progression, not an impulsive decision based on despair. A life as destructive as Magdalene's takes time to recover from, and it would have been welcome to have actually seen that healing process, instead of just moving on to the send-them-home-with-a-smile ending.
Under Shawn Kathryne King's direction, the acting and staging are earnest but only rarely rise above community theater, even with professional union members in the cast.
While the zeal of people who believe they're on a mission can be off-putting (making a production like this more about confirming an audience's belief system than about challenging it), the sincere desire to make theater that speaks to social issues instead of empty-headed entertainment ended up making me a convert.
MAGDALENE AT THREE TREES THEATRE, ROCK HARBOR CHURCH, 345 FISCHER AVE., COSTA MESA, (714) 384-0914, ext. 306; WWW.ROCKHARBOR.ORG. WED.-Fri., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 27. $20.