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)|
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 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.