A review of “Creature,” about 15th-century mystic Margery Kempe, on stage at Theater Schmeater through June 25.
Who says piety is a prerequisite for sainthood? Margery Kempe is willing to test that idea in Heidi Schreck’s “Creature,” a darkly comic bit of historical fiction about the 15th-century English Christian mystic.
The real woman is famous for her autobiographical “The Book of Margery Kempe,” in which she detailed a variety of religious experiences, including visions of Jesus Christ. Schreck, a Seattle-area native now based in New York who has written for the cable series “Nurse Jackie” and “Billions,” imagines her Margery as a woman deeply out of step with oppressive medieval expectations. She’s upfront about her carnal desires — her husband, sure, but also a nice medium-rare steak — and positions herself as a paragon of spiritual enlightenment, gender roles be damned.
With its aggressively contemporary dialogue and broad comic gestures, the play walks a fine line between amusement and irritation before settling into a more considered examination of the tension between public faith and private doubt.
by Heidi Schreck. Through June 25, at Theater Schmeater, 2125 Third Ave., Seattle; $25-$30 (206-324-5801 or schmeater.org).
The same isn’t quite true for Theater Schmeater’s production, directed by Emily Harvey and commanded by Allison Yolo, whose Margery is a scenery-engulfing assemblage of goofy voices and wide-eyed mugging that feels uncalibrated from the get-go.
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After Margery claims to have been visited by Jesus in purple robes, she becomes more and more insufferable, tormenting the help, writing off her friends with nasty letters and loudly wailing in church, but Yolo gives herself little runway to build up to the character’s increasingly ostentatious state.
On the other hand, Margery’s outbursts become more understandable the more time we spend with her. The vision of Jesus was kind of an outlier; she’s more frequently visited by demon king Asmodeus (Noah Luce, who, with a smear of black eye makeup, is more Hot Topic than Hades).
Convinced she’s on the path to sainthood, Margery finds a sympathetic, if skeptical ear in the mild-mannered Father Thomas (Matthew Middleton). He won’t come out and say the word “heresy,” but he does offer warnings about the prevalence of burnings at the stake.
Her husband, John (Adam St. John), isn’t quite so understanding, particularly when Margery decides her sainthood campaign is in need of some chastity.
Schreck’s script isn’t really concerned with whether Margery’s vision of Christ is genuine. In England in 1402, it doesn’t matter; this is a society where the rules of the game — religious and otherwise — are rigged against women, particularly ones with any hint of an independent streak.
It’s telling that the only female character with any peace of mind is Juliana of Norwich (a sweetly droll Ruth McRee), who’s locked herself away from the world in a hermit’s lair for the past 30 years.
Juliana’s appearance near the end of the play offers a brief but welcome respite for Margery. After two hours of uneven comedy, the scene’s thoughtful depiction of a life lived simply has a similar effect on “Creature.”