Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On-Stage: The Tidings Brought to Mary

Considered one of the great dramatists of the early twentieth century, Paul Claudel’s plays have been rarely produced by American companies in recent years. Clearly, his conservative Catholicism has not endeared him to the contemporary theater world. The younger brother of sculptor Camille Claudel, he served France in a number of diplomatic postings (at one time employing composer Darius Milhaud as a mission secretary), ultimately becoming a vocal opponent of the Vichy puppet regime. Claudel’s The Tidings Brought to Mary finally returns to the New York stage for the first time since its 1922 Broadway premiere, in a Blackfriars Repertory-Storm Theatre co-production currently running at Paradise Factory.

Anne Vercors has amassed considerable land and wealth, but he (yes, he is a he) is alarmed by the chaos and moral decline surrounding him. France has two ineffectual rivals to the throne, while Rome lacks a Pope. In an act of probable sacrifice, Vercors decides to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to pray for France—a journey with a very low rate of survival in Medieval times. Setting his affairs in order before departing, Vercors arranges the marriage of his eldest daughter, the devout Violaine, to Jacques Hurey, who has been like a son to the older man. Violaine and Hurey happily agree to Vercors’ plan, but their wedding is not to be.

With a little help from her jealous sister Mara, Violaine’s past will irrevocably sabotage her engagement. A woman of boundless love and forgiveness, Violaine met with the guilt-ridden cathedral architect Pierre de Craon to absolve him for a clumsy attempt to rape her. After the attack, de Craon was stricken with leprosy in a cosmic act of retribution for his sins. To sooth his ailing spirit and body, Violaine kisses de Craon on the lips. Tragically, such contact is sufficient for Violaine to contract the dreaded disease herself.

When Violaine reveals her condition to her intended, she is banished to the wilderness, forced to rely on the peasantry’s reluctant charity. With her health declining precipitously, she lives like a Stylite saint, maintaining her Christian love for all, including and especially her scheming sister. Tidings might superficially sound like a tale of sibling strife, but the rivalry only travels in one direction: from Mara, projected unto Violaine.

Claudel’s Catholic theology is a far cry from happy church gospel, dealing with themes of forgiveness and sacrifice in the starkest of terms. Like her father, Violaine is willing to sacrifice herself on behalf of her fellow man. Indeed, she is blessed in her suffering, because it those who are most wretched who shall find salvation.

Tidings is an extraordinarily challenging play, but the Blackfriars’ production never loses sight of the fundamental human drama. Claudel’s translated text is obviously quite demanding, but the entire cast handles the material quite convincingly. In particular, Erin Beirnard brings a humanizing vulnerability to the role of the saintly Violaine. Likewise, Ross DeGraw is a commanding stage presence as Vercors, portraying him not as a religious stereotype, but a man of principle and authority.

Claudel’s play might be demanding, but it well rewards the audience’s close attention. It is a meaty work, smartly produced and acted. Happily, the Blackfriars and the Storm Theatre will follow-up Tidings with two more of the French playwright’s neglected plays as part of their Paul Claudel Project. Now officially open, Tidings runs through April 4th.