Review of “The Collision” and “The Martyrdom”: A nun ahead of her time

Three nuns hard at work in their convent raise their heads to discover that the sky is falling… It could be the start of a New York jok...


Three nuns hard at work in their convent raise their heads to discover that the sky is falling…

It could be the start of a New York joke or cartoon. But this is the opening scene of “The Collision and What Came After, or, Gunch!”, a play presented alongside “The Martyrdom” by Two Headed Rep at 59E59 Theaters. Despite the comic potential of this device, these works, inspired by the writing of the nun and playwright of the tenth century Hrotsvitha of Gandersheimare neither as funny nor – at two hours and 40 minutes – as catchy as they could be.

In “The Collision,” written by Nadja Leonhard-Hooper, patient Sister Gudrun (Emma Ramos) and critic Sister Anise (Lizzie Fox) attempt to teach young Sister Gunch (Layla Khoshnoudi) the responsibilities of the ideal nun: doing chores, praying, hand-copying Bibles – you know, as usual. But Gunch is rude, direct and curious about more than God. “All nature is vile and fruitful and touches each other,” she says with lustful wonder, recounting a time when she saw a goat riding another.

When a giant meteorite lands near the convent, the Abbess follows the path of the Wicked Witch of the East and Gunch suffers a deadly attack which she miraculously survives. The event forces the characters to reconsider the lessons of faith they have been taught – which messages are prophetic and which are heretical, and why.

The script has a few delicately written passages, for example when Gudrun describes “gray-black clouds” that gather “as if trying to bind the sky like a wound”. The performers also have standout moments: Halima Henderson, who plays a few secondary characters, has an invaluable role as a messenger with no understanding of social cues. And Khoshnoudi, with his dreamy looks and devilish grin, could have his own play, his own TV series, in fact, as the deliciously weird Gunch.

As for the story itself, it’s goofy, but to what end isn’t always clear; Lily Riopelle’s staging, which incorporates physical humor and playful props (a severed hand, a dead pigeon, and a hen called “little queen”, designed by Liz Oakley), often reads amateurish. Although the play benefits greatly from its narrative twists, which take the story into the realms of science fiction and the absurd, the screenplay fails to pull off its final maneuver, an explicit critique of institutional religion and a big statement. on storytelling.

“A story is a snake, and we are mice inside, swallowed whole but still alive,” one character says at one point. That sentiment can be applied to this piece, which swallows up its characters – and a certain narrative logic – in its bizarre contortions.

If “The Collision” is more in love with its quirks than cohesive storytelling, then “The Martyrdom” is its antipode, a piece so procedural that it leaves little room for weirdness and wonder.

After a brief intermission, the four actresses return for this second play, the full title of which is so long that its reading requires its own intermission: “The Martyrdom of the Blessed Virgins Agape, Chionia and Irena, by Hrotsvitha the Nun of Gandersheim, as told throughout the last millennium by the men, women, scholars, monks, puppets and theater companies (like this one) who loved him, or: Dulcitius.

‘The Martyrdom’, directed by Molly Clifford, is based on Hrotsvitha’s play ‘Dulcitius’, about three pious sisters who try to remain chaste despite the intentions of lascivious politicians. “Dulcitius” appears throughout “The Martyrdom”, albeit in different plays and in different guises.

With a translation by Lizzie Fox and new text by Amanda Keating, “The Martyrdom” is a history lesson, celebrating the legacy of Hrotsvitha, who is considered the first female playwright to have her work recorded, by providing a timeline of major incarnations of “Dulcite.”

Thus, the show begins in a monastery during Hrotsvitha’s lifetime, where a council or monks examine the playwright’s work. Centuries later, Hungarian nuns wrote a modern vernacular adaptation of “Dulcitius”. Then there are the French artists who use puppets to tell the story of the three sisters. Then the British suffragette in the 1800s and an American nun at the University of Michigan in the 1950s. It’s a clever move for such dated material: in each scene, characters perform parts of the play, each version reflecting the changing context of the material over time. After each section, a smashing fourth educational moment occurs as the actresses provide more details about Hrotsvitha’s text and its various productions.

The result, unfortunately, is colorless and, like “The Collision”, unnecessarily long. “The Martyrdom” tries to stretch the scenes of Hrotsvitha’s play through the story to fit its structure, despite the fact that the play’s plot is already quite anemic, so there’s no enough action for everyone.

It doesn’t help that Cate McCrea’s set design for the tiny theater, which seats about 50 people, is rather bland: a plain back wall, a long rectangular bar that cuts the length of the stage, serving as a table or desk or bench as needed.

Somewhere between “The Collision” and “The Martyrdom” lies a hallowed middle ground of weirdness and structure, chaos and order, that would make even a 10th-century Saxon nun say, “Amen.”

The Collision / The Martyrdom
Through Feb. 5 at 59E59 Theatres, Manhattan; 59e59.org. Duration: 2h40.

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