Sylvia Milo lectures and preaches in “I am the utterance of my name: Divining Mary Magdalene,” which debuted Nov. 4 and runs through Nov. 6 at the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township, as part of the Live Arts series. She also dances and sings.
At one point, she wails nonstop for several minutes. At another, she recites some of Patti Smith’s “Easter.” In the work’s most surprising segment, she invites six female members of the audience onto the stage to sit in a circle for a guided meditation. The six then briefly describe what they saw during it.
Milo and her musical collaborator Nathan Davis — they created the work together, partially while in residency at the Live Arts program — had their “The Other Mozart” presented at the Bickford in 2019. Though unconventional in some ways, that was more of a straightforward play.
“I am the utterance of my name” — in which Milo sometimes portrays the Biblical and Gnostic figure, but often steps out of character to offer her thoughts and feelings about her — can’t really be called a play. It’s a daringly experimental music-theater piece that offers many ways of exploring its subject, with seven discrete sections devoted to various parts of her story (apostle, hermit, witness to the Crucifixion and so on).
Mary Magdalene has been viewed in different ways at different times in history. Part of what Milo does serves to entangle all that, often quoting from the original texts.
In one of the show’s most scholarly interludes, she explains that Mary Magdalene was not viewed as a prostitute until Pope Gregory I declared her one in a 591 homily. “It wasn’t an accident,” Milo says. “Mary Magdalene’s reputation was deliberately altered to lower her status, lower her power, to suppress the women’s leadership in the early church.”
Missing pages from the Gospel of Mary are cleverly portrayed by about a minute of static.
The video and production design by Monica Duncan adds a sense of grandeur. And Davis, who is onstage for most of the piece, contributes crucially, with a wide variety of gorgeous music — using string, keyboard and percussion instruments — and sound effects, creating a sonic undercurrent that holds the whole piece together. In one segment, he amplifies the sound of his hands moving water around in a bowl, to strangely hypnotic effect.
As the show’s sound designer, he also mikes Milo so loudly that you can hear her breathing during one of her most strenuous dances, so that that almost becomes a form of music on its own.
Most of “I am the utterance of my name,” though, proceeds slowly and deliberately, giving the piece a ritualistic quality. But its ending, with poetry and dancing celebrating Magdalene as a Goddess, had an urgency and a looseness that suggested that what is won by all this questioning is a form of freedom.
It was a truly grand finale, and a memorable cap to an evening that came off as very uneven to me — an inevitability, perhaps, given how different its various parts were.
Remaining performances of “I am the utterance of my name: Divining Mary Magdalene,” presented by Live Arts at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, take place Nov. 5 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 6 at 2 p.m. Visit MorrisMuseum.org.
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