Disco balls were nowhere in evidence in 10th-century Germany, but it somehow makes sense when one materializes toward the end of Emma Horwitz’s “Mary Gets Hers” — a spiky and adventurous retelling of the medieval devotional play “Abraham, or the Rise and Repentance of Mary.”
That’s because Mary (Haley Wong) is herself a multifaceted marvel of a heroine, metamorphosing before our eyes as if in a time-lapse video of a molting caterpillar. We meet her as an 8-year-old orphan plunged into grief after the plague-induced loss of her parents — “they dribbled to death” is her frank formulation. She is soon rescued by a hermit, Abraham, who helps raise his ward in the social equivalent of a Faraday bag, shielded completely from strangers and the “taint of sin.” After four uneventful, psalm-filled years, Mary is lured from her cloistered cell by a stranger, setting in motion a chain of religious and identity crises.
Horwitz’s play, a Playwrights Realm production and her Off Broadway debut, wisely drops the didacticism in the original work, written in the 10th century by the Benedictine abbess Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, in favor of something less … deodorized. Smell, for Horwitz’s characters, is among the first things they notice about each other and the last they forget. “Back when they were alive my parents and I would kiss each other on the tops of our heads where we smell most like ourselves,” Mary reminisces in one scene. In another, she sniffs the head and armpit of a visiting soldier (Kai Heath). His signature scent? Spring onion. Moments like these showcase Horwitz’s sensuous touch in updating material cobwebbed with abstraction and moralizing.
Josiah Davis, the director, coaxes lively and lucid performances from all the actors. Claire Siebers dashes through a daunting number of roles as Mary’s clueless lovers, and Mary, the character who departs most from the 10th-century play, progresses — with startling speed — from love-on-the-brain ingénue to cynic speaking in scare quotes.
If the slapstick tone in some of Mary’s colloquies with men seems like a heretical departure from Hrotsvitha’s play, so much the better. Horwitz’s version pushes us right up against the pane of Mary’s inner life. Her addresses to God are not just a way of revealing her roiling thoughts about suitors, but seem, in Wong’s delivery, like a winking reference to Judy Blume’s Margaret. Certainly there’s enough teenage Sturm und Drang on display for a novel.
Abraham (Susannah Perkins) and his fellow hermeneutic hermit, Ephraim (Octavia Chavez-Richmond), are also immensely entertaining. Dressed identically from their tonsures to their camouflage Crocs (Camilla Dely did the costumes), they parry about God and gruel in the droll manner of Vladimir and Estragon. That the cast consists of “women, nonbinary, trans, and gender-variant actors” adds another layer to the theme of transformations. Like a spinning disco ball, “Mary Gets Hers” bewitches the gaze.
Mary Gets Hers
Through Oct. 14 at MCC Theater, Manhattan; mcctheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
This review is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.