Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In "The Magdalene" Mary is Jesus' wife -- not the world's most famous prostitute

I wrote this feature for the July 17, 2011 issue of The Living Church magazine.

Although he grew up in the United Church of Christ tradition, James Olm had no impression of Mary Magdalene until about a dozen years ago when a minister gave him a copy of The Gnostic Gospels and he began reading about the woman wrongly considered the most famous prostitute of all time. Reading the Gospel of Mary revolutionized his thinking, giving him a missionary zeal to spread the word in the best way he knew how.

“Immediately what went up in my mind was, ‘Boy, did she get screwed and I’ve got to clear her name,’” he said.

That’s just what this 54-year-old musical theatre professor from Casper College in Wyoming hopes to do with The Magdalene, his Off-Broadway musical play about the woman The Gnostic Gospels portray as one of Jesus’ most intimate disciples.

“If she was the enlightened one, the apostle of apostles, we should know this and make it work for our belief systems now,” he said. “What would society be like if we had had an example like Mary? It makes Christ even more of a revolutionary. Our whole society would have been different if the Jesus figure had been a woman. We wouldn’t have had the patriarchal society. It doesn’t take anything away from Christ. This was something I had to do.”

Olm (right in photo) shares his passion for an alternative image of Mary while sprawled on the steps inside the Theatre at St. Clement’s, his lean figure clan in jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers. Up those stairs his play is in rehearsal, five days away from the first preview performance and less than three weeks from the scheduled June 27 opening. He chose this facility after looking at several other Off-Broadway houses, even though he had to wait more than 15 months for it to be available. It was at St. Clement’s Church in Rome that Pope Gregory I declared Mary Magdalene a prostitute, so it seemed appropriate to change that image in this Episcopal church that was gutted in the 1960s to create a theatre and where now both church and theatre reside.

“My thinking is this is where we can clear her name, finally.”

He fully expects opposition to this effort. After the play had a reading in Casper he received hate mail. The Catholic priests he showed it to in town disapproved. It was just too much for some people to see Mary not only lifted to full discipleship, but married to Yeshua (the Hebrew for Jesus) and pregnant with a daughter. (Olm won’t say whether it’s Jesus’ child because that would be giving away his ending.)

“My whole belief system has solidified,” he said. “I don’t see myself as a Christian anymore. I still believe everything he (Jesus) said, but we all have the same potential to do what Christ did, to be enlightened, but we don’t get it.”

The road to this Off-Broadway run began in 1999 when Olm, who has written two other original musicals, Mulberry and Obits, discovered The Gnostic Gospels -- and his calling. He composed the music and co-wrote the book, with J.C. Hanley, who also wrote the lyrics. Richard Maltby Jr. (left in photo), a veteran Broadway producer, director and lyricist, is the creative consultant on the production, which is directed by Richard Burk and is schedule to run through Sept. 4.

Maltby, whose Broadway chops include conceiving and directing the only two musical revues to ever win Tony Awards for best musicals, Fosse and Ain’t Misbehavin’, was attracted to The Magdalene because of his own fascination with The Gnostic Gospels, and he sensed potential in the video he saw of the Wyoming reading, calling Olm a gifted composer.

“It was surprisingly touching and skillfully done,” he said, sitting in the theatre during the rehearsal’s dinner break. “It needed some sort of professional work on it. In musicals you have to follow the action.”

With that in mind, Maltby, a former altar boy who grew up in a nondenominational church, guided the show down to one act, 90 minutes with no intermission, from two acts in two hours with an intermission.

“When we stripped all that talk out, the story really started coming alive and I was surprised at how powerful it was becoming,” he said. “It’s not for nothing that it’s called the greatest story ever told.”

And Maltby knows a thing or two about telling stories for the theatre.

“When you’ve done a lot of shows there are certain things you know to do, usually mistakes you’ve made and learned from,” he said. “There’s nothing in the world more complicated than a new musical.”
Like Olm, Maltby, who studied contemporary religions in college, believes in seeing the historical figures of the Bible differently even if that means a married Jesus.

“The central issue in all Christian religions is that Christ was a man,” he said. “That’s central, and he might have been God. People want to take away the human part of what makes him a man. Sex makes us very uncomfortable.”

He sees this also in the idea of the virgin birth.

“We just want to so purify him of any taint of humanity. I find it troubling. This show returned me to what I believed in.”

For the dozen or so actors, the show may be doing the opposite, taking them from what they believed in. Maltby says cast members have been reading The Gnostic Gospels on their own and their curiosity may be leading them to beliefs that are more relevant to their lives.

One of these who is taking a new look at Mary Magdalene is Linsie VanWinkle, the 28-year-old actress portraying her. VanWinkle (center) grew up Baptist in Oklahoma and never imagined her first starring role in New York would be as Jesus’ wife.

“Not in a million years,” she says with laugh.

The only Magdalene she had been aware of was the prostitute and she’s finding this one much more accessible.

“She’s a strong, feisty woman in touch emotionally but not afraid to get dirty, like me,” she says. “I based it on that. Not to step on faith toes, but it seems more the beliefs I have. He was a human being and she would have been there to support him. It’s such a delicate subject. It’s a wonderful story to tell and I enjoy telling it.”

The pressure she feels is more than just that of a leading actress portraying a character.

“I have a huge sense of responsibility. People only know the stereotype. There’s a huge feminist bone in me to show women who are strong and have a place in society.”

A feminist bone also propelled Olm, a divorced father of three, especially when he learned the Catholic church had rescinded the notion of Mary Magdalene being a prostitute.

“I thought, ‘Why haven’t we heard of this? It’s still being preached. This is not doing justice to women. This is wrong.’”

He hopes people will see his play with an open mind.

“It’s not about preaching at all,” he says. “It’s a story about Jesus and Mary and Mary’s journey in a world that was suppressing her. It’s a story about women’s empowerment and trying to find the answer.

“I’m sure there’s going to be controversy from the ultraconservatives. What I ask for is tolerance. If we could accept everybody’s beliefs we’d have a lot better society.”

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