Sunday, December 11, 2022

"Mary's Wondrous Body" by The Birth Play Project at Elision Playhouse

One of my favorite things about being a Twin Cities Theater Blogger is checking out a new theater company and immediately finding a new favorite (e.g. Transatlantic Love Affair, The Winding Sheet Outfit). That's what happened last night when I went to see the new original "dark comedy with music" Mary's Wondrous Body by The Birth Play Project. Led by 2020 U of M grad Madeline Wall, the company focuses on telling birth stories, which is definitely an untapped niche in theater, although something we have started to see more of lately (see Penumbra's recent play Weathering, and the MN Fringe hit Endometriosis the Musical, which wasn't about birth specifically but the larger topic of women's reproductive health). In addition to being a unique and necessary topic, their work, at least based on this one play, is thoughtful, innovative, and bold. A woman belting out songs about the joy and pain of childbirth and everything surrounding it on stage in front of an audience - yes, we need that. I've never given birth (thankfully so after seeing shows like this), but for those who have, I imagine it feels quite validating to see the experience depicted on stage with respect and raw honesty. The birthing process is a fundamental part of the human experience from the beginning of human history, so (like House of the Dragon's theme of "the childbed is our battlefield") let's get into it. (Click here for info about and to purchase tickets for Mary's Wondrous Body, continuing through December 18.)

The Mary of the title is a historical figure, Mary Toft, who in 1726 claimed to have given birth to rabbits. I won't go into the gruesome details of how she pulled it off, but she fooled medical professionals for months. The claim was eventually found to be fraudulent, possibly done for fame and money. The creators of this piece have taken this bizarre and little known historical fact, and used it to tell a story about today - about childbirth, about miscarriage, about infant and maternal mortality, about medical negligence or even cruelty. 

In this version of the story, Mary is a sympathetic character who reluctantly agrees to this plan to fool the medical profession in order to make some money for her family, which includes her mother-in-law Ann Toft, a midwife, her sibling-in-law Mags, and her husband Joshua, who cares for their one living child while Mary is off birthing rabbits. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, with some jumping back and forth in time, but in a way that always makes sense thanks to the well-constructed script and clear direction, both by Madeline Wall. What's also clear is the love between the members of this family, despite the pain they've experienced (the death due to childbirth of one of Ann's daughters, Mary's infant daughter's death). They may argue and disagree, but they're there to support each other when the need arises. Even Mary and her husband seem to really love each other; in a historical story like this I expected the husband to be the bad guy, but they have a very sweet, supportive, and loving relationship.

Isabella Dunsieth as Mary (photo by Emily Garst)
While the play is set in 1726, the language is very modern, no archaic accents, with characters speaking the way people speak today. This makes the characters and their stories feel more real and relatable. The use of music in storytelling is very well done, in a way that makes this piece hard to classify. Mary has a couple of really powerful songs, some of which are sung into an inactive handheld mike, sometimes standing at a mike stand in a circle of light like a rock concert. Ensemble members also sing solo or in harmony, accompanied by Nick Miller on cello, and occasionally on piano. The music is haunting or funny or clever, and adds much to the storytelling (music and lyrics by Madeline Wall, cello and piano composition by Nick Miller, Joni Griffith, and Harrison Wade).

The play is performed in the lobby space of Elision Playhouse, with just 24 audience seats on three sides of the performance space, providing a very intimate up-close-and-personal feeling. A kitchen table on wheels, a few chairs, and an open doorframe are the only set pieces in the effectively sparse design. Lighting is also well done and appropriate to the space, including the aforementioned spotlight. Characters are dressed in clothing that are sort of outside time - could be now, could be then. Overalls and nightgowns for the birthing women, a partial dress or lab coat thrown over neutral pants and shirts for the ensemble members, with work boots or bare feet. Many of the costume pieces have a few patches sewn on them, a nice way to tie everything together. (Lighting design by Uriyah Dalman, costume design by Mariabella Sorini.)

Olive (Laila Sahir) gives birth with help from Ann (Sarah Broude),
Mags (Emily Rosenberg) and Mary (Isabella Dunsieth)
(photo by Emily Garst)
In this intimate space, there's nowhere for the actors to hide, and no need to. They're all wonderful, playing up the comedy, and the drama, and the music. Isabella Dunsieth is a revelation as Mary. When she opens her mouth to sing, she fills that space to the rafters. And she plays the character with such raw and real emotion. Also great are Caleb Wagner as Joshua, Sarah Broude as Ann, Emily Rosenberg as Mags, Laila Sahir as a friend who also gives birth, and musician Nick Miller, who steps out from behind his instruments to play a doctor in one scene. Together they feel like a true ensemble, in service to the storytelling.

In this season of endless holiday plays and musicals, a show like this could get lost. But if you're looking for theater that's a little edgier, a little riskier, a little challenging, that's speaking to an important issue of the day, that beautifully weaves together history, comedy, drama, and music, go see Mary's Wondrous Body. Six performances remain, with limited seating for all (which is part of what makes this experience so effective), so make your reservations now. And follow @birthplayproject on Instagram to watch for what they do next, I know I will be.

I'll leave you with an excerpt from a piece that Madeline wrote for Minnesota Women's Press called "Placing Birth in Public Memory."

For a hero's journey, turn to birth. For a test of intimate relationships, turn to birth. To find the extraordinary-ordinary generosity of strangers, turn to birth.

Likewise, for evidence of systemic inequities, turn to birth. For a test of a society's beliefs about bodily autonomy, turn to birth. To find histories of violence, turn to birth. We need these stories, lest we forget the twilight sleep under which some of our parents were born, the systematic marginalization of Black midwives, the appalling racial disparities in infant and maternal health. We need opportunities to learn what made our loved ones feel hurt or held in their most vulnerable and valiant moments.