May Day Sermon
Performed by Bridget Hanley. Adapted and directed by John Gallogly from a poem by James Dickey.
Nancy Wright Cooper launches her one-woman show, Religious Experience, from the entrance to the Bindlestiff Playhouse, where she welcomes the audience to the "Church of the Immaculate Heart of Nancy." She wears a diaphanous dress under which she is very plainly naked and exhorts us to relax. Smiling, she reminds us that we are not actually in a church, but in a theater -- a distinction she would do well to take to heart.
What follows is 90 minutes of inane lecturing on the topic of religion interwoven with Cooper's childhood memories of the same. This could have been interesting enough -- her mother converted the whole family to Mormonism after brief exposures to the Baptists and Presbyterians -- had she anything to offer beyond "everything great about religion with the bad parts left out."
What becomes increasingly distracting is the sight of her zaftig nude body under the gauzy dress, especially when she ventures into the audience to rub up against a hapless man sitting in the front row. Under the supposed guise of liberating us from our (assumed) inhibitions, she jumps, dances, caresses herself, and hints that soon, very soon, the dress will go.
Cooper manages to belittle virtually every religious practice she's encountered without ever making a cogent point beyond, "If it feels good, do it." A long, boring story about listening to an African drummer leads her to the "irony" of having a spiritual experience. Such puzzling remarks, shared as profound realizations, make you wonder if she has any idea what the word "irony" means. Then she's off again, leaping about the stage, breasts bobbling, to confide, "I danced, searching for the sacred but finding only the profane around me." (Hey, me, too.)
In case you don't manage to find room in your schedule for Religious Experience, I'll end the suspense and reveal that she does eventually lose the dress. It gets dropped during a massively horrible rendition of "Amazing Grace." Let's just leave it at that.
At the other end of the scale entirely, a different sort of theatrical and religious experience was available all too briefly last week at the Solo Mio Festival when Bridget Hanley performed "May Day Sermon," a poem by James Dickey. As adapted and directed by John Gallogly, this is a dazzling work that marries sexual ecstasy with the grim morality associated with Christian fundamentalism.
Sound effects -- a rushing stream, twittering birds, and the piano-accompanied voices of an amateur choir -- conjure a picture of the sun-dappled, leafy-green Appalachians. Hanley enters, pale and drawn, hesitates, smoothes her hair, and tentatively approaches the forbidding pulpit at center. She touches the Bible warily, rubs her hands against the sides of the pulpit and begins the incantatory poetry: "Each year at this time I shall be telling you of the Lord/ ... Giving men all the help they need/ To drag their daughters into barns."
It helps that the full title ("May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Ga., by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church") has let us in on what is happening: Having heard of yet another God-fearing farmer who has discovered his daughter with a lover and punished her with a beating, Hanley, in the character of a female Baptist preacher, is saying goodbye. Overcome by anguish, she is swept by the poetry as if possessed first by the sin implicit in such brutality, then by the ecstasies of the natural world, which very much include sex.
As she spins the story -- culminating in the girl's escape with her lover on a motorcycle -- Hanley's achievement is to surrender herself completely to Dickey's epic-length poem. It is as though actor and character have both met their match, which is God as revealed in poetry, nature, and the spring tides of passion.
A spellbinding, authentic, and profoundly religious experience.
Religious Experience runs through Oct. 27.