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For two acts, John E. Wulp's The Saintliness of Margery Kempe is a fairly amusing comedy. It relates the adventures of a fourteenth-century English housewife who, smitten with a sense of her high destiny, decides to set out upon a career of spectacular wickedness. This career, which involves the management of a brewery, comes to nothing because her beer is terrible, and so Margery alters her plans. She determines to become a saint, an ambition which is fulfilled after she performs the accredited miracle of surviving unscathed the collapse of a church. Thus far the playwright is on safe ground. He exhibits a talent for writing witty dialogue, and his light tone wobbles only once or twice when he essays into the composition of poetry.
But after the first few minutes of the third act, Mr. Wulp reveals himself as a bearer of good tidings. He has a message--roughly, that it is wise for men to stay at home and cultivate their gardens. Unfortunately for the playwright, this has been said before, and more persuasively than he is able to say it. Unfortunately for the play, he drops the accents of comedy and continues in a tone which is apparently meant to be highly serious. The writing in the last act is made up of the worst sort of pseudo-poetic prose, studded with such obesrvations as, "Life is a prostitute and death is a whore." The images employed are weak with age, except for a few borrowed from T.S. Eliot. Mr. Wulp, in short, quite effectively succeeds in turning his comedy to junk.
It is a relief to turn from contemplation of the play itself to the production it receives at the hands of the Poets' Theatre. Edward Thommen, the director, once again reveals his extraordinary ability to work out an effective staging on the theatre's tiny stage. And this time his work is complicated by the fact that the play includes nearly forty speaking parts. A large percentage of the roles is filled by capable actors. While the play permits, Sarah Braveman gives a fine, robust performance as Margery. The most notable of the supporting players include Michael Linenthall as a condescending priest, Robert Handy as a bishop and a timorous knight, and Lew Petterson as a loud-mouthed citizen. Jack Rogers, who plays Margery's husband, shows flashes of ability, but he is saddled with some of Wulp's worst lines.
On the whole, The Saintliness of Margery Kempe demonstrates once again that The Poets' Theatre posesses the ability as well as the resources to perform a valuable service as a producer of experimental drama, and that all it needs is some decant material. It's pity that the group is forced to stage this sort of stuff.
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