|Shannon Hemphill and Ali Eppy|
In author Dana Bagshaw's pop-up theatre production, the "cell" in question is a Spartan monastic room, the kind to which a woman under holy orders might retreat to live out her days in contemplation. A woman like the historical Julian of Norwich, whose conversations with another real-life medieval mystic and pilgrim, Margery Kempe—ca. 1410—make up the bulk of Bagshaw's ambitious play of ideas.
Santa Cruz author Bagshaw lived in England for 18 years, where early versions of the play were staged at offbeat but atmospheric venues like medieval churches. Cell Talk: 1410 had its American premiere last Sunday at Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Santa Cruz, and will be performed again next Sunday, September 29, at the First Congregational Church on High Street.
The play is largely based on Kempe's book, The Book of Margery Kempe, (dictated to a priest, since she never learned to read or write), considered to be the first autobiography in the English language. Bagshaw distills the fascinating events of Kempe's life to a series of vignettes in which Margery (Shannon Hemphill), tells her story to Julian (Ali Eppy), or interacts with her long-suffering, yet loyal husband, John Kempe (Rick Kuhn).
A self-defined visionary and mystic, Margery had her first apocalyptic vision after the difficult birth of her first child. Chained up as a madwoman for a while, she only recovered after Jesus appeared to her to talk her down—beginning what she claimed was a lifelong series of conversations with her Savior.
After bearing 14 children, Margery made a bargain of celibacy with her husband, visited Julian, another famed mystic, for confirmation that her visions were of Divine and not demonic origin, and spent most of the rest of her life on holy pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Assisi, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela.
At a time when the Holy Church was routinely burning "heretics," Margery was tried and briefly imprisoned for heresy. She outraged church fathers for daring to have a personal relationship with Jesus outside of the church, and even for wearing white, supposed to be the sole province of virgins or women in holy orders.
Bagshaw's play is thoughtfully directed by Matt Matthews (making smart use of the outdoor space, a walkway alongside the Calvary library). It begins with Margery's first terrifying visions, and her husband's bewildered response. (The affable and funny Kuhn's John Kempe is the audience touchstone throughout.) They have a couple of more scenes together, including the entertaining moment when Margery prevails upon the disappointed John to embrace celibacy. But the rest of Margery's story unfolds in conversations with Julian.
|Rick Kuhn, Shannon Hemphill, Ali Eppy|
These mostly concern the quality of spirituality and the goodness of the Lord, along with the revelation of Margery's "secret sin," stemming from a rape she endured as a young girl. (Some graphic descriptions in this scene may not be suitable for young children.) Some of these conversations could stand a little pruning to sharpen their focus. But all is redeemed in their final encounter, when Bagshaw's themes of the triumph of the God of Love over the punishing God of wrath, and intuitive feminine mysticism over rigid church doctrine, register with gusto.
As Margery, Hemphill is a tad girlish and modern at times, but she also has moments of humor and warmth. Eppy's elegant Julian is the voice of serenity throughout. And the use of a quartet of musicians on hand, playing authentic medieval music between scene breaks, is an especially nice touch.
Cell Talk: 1410 plays next Sunday, Sept. 29, 4 to 5:30 p.m., at the First Congregational Church, 900 High Street, Santa Cruz. Tickets available at the door for a $10/15 donation.