Tuesday, October 31, 2023

"Mariology" by Critical Mass Performance Group at Mixed Blood Theatre

For their first full production since the retirement of founding Artistic Director Jack Reuler a year and a half ago, Mixed Blood Theatre, now under the leadership of Mark Valdez, is bringing us the work of the L.A.-based theater company Critical Mass Performance Group. Mariology is a surreal, absurdist, high concept exploration of the idea of the Virgin Mary in religion and culture. To be honest, it's a little too weird for me; I need at least a little bit of realism to connect to a play (which I didn't get until the final scene). But it is an interesting concept, with thoughtful design and consistent performances in this surreal style. You can see it for yourself at Mixed Blood now through November 12 (all tickets pay-what-you-can, beginning at $0).

Since I'm struggling with words to describe the show, I'll let the artists do that: "In a mythical 5th grade classroom, lessons give way to fantasy and rebellion in a rambunctious spectacle of music, text, movement, and image. Mariology deconstructs deep-seeded learning to inspire imagination about the Virgin Mary's roles in systems of gender, power, and faith, opening the many possibilities for liberation." That's a fascinating topic, but it was a little difficult for me to make the connections. The story begins in a classroom, the six-person L.A.-based cast (men, women, and non-binary) all dressed like girls in a Catholic school, with baby blue dresses, white socks, and black shoes. They perform robotic movements and repeat phrases in unison, and are asked questions and punished for wrong answers. We also see them playing, acting out mass and a purity ritual. They're preparing for the Mary's Day Celebration, and when we see the celebration, that's when things get really weird.

Mixed Blood's stage has been transformed into a 1970s classroom with blackboard walls and six desks with matching chairs. The costume design goes from the conservative uniforms to robes to some wild costumes for the fantasy scenes. There are some impressive tech effects with lighting, sound (including audio of Patty Hearst and Donald Trump), and a hidden door at the back of the stage. It's obvious a lot of time, artistry, and thought went into creating the piece (direction/script/scenic design by Nancy Keystone, lighting design by Elizabeth Harper, sound design by Randall Tico, and costume design by Lenda Sands). 

There are a lot of fascinating ideas explored in this play. The impossible standard of the "virgin mother" that women and girls are held to, child abuse, gender roles, women's health care, and the dangers of purity culture. Unfortunately the style of the piece left me a little lost. But if you like experimental theater that pushes the boundaries and has something to say about interesting and relevant topics, this could be the show for you. Check it out at Mixed Blood Theatre in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood through November 19.