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The Duke University Institute of the Arts presented the Archipelago Theatre’s provocative production of “And Mary Wept,” a new multi-media experimental drama written by Ellen Hemphill and Nor Hall and directed by Hemphill, Sept. 25-Oct. 5 in the Sheafer Theater on Duke’s West Campus. “And Mary Wept” was a potent stimulant to jar the self-absorbed and self-satisfied in the audience out of their complacency, as well a veritable feast for the eye and the ear, thanks to set and costume designer Jan Chambers, lighting designer Lou Pounder, and Los Angeles composer and sound designer Penka Kouneva.
Chambers’ superlative set for the salt-encrusted desert island where most of the play takes place, Pounder’s skillful illumination of the action, and Kouneva’s haunting melodies as performed live by Leslie Alprin (cello), Eric Chaiken (trumpet), and Tyson Rogers (keyboard) together gave “And Mary Wept” an extraordinary look and sound.
The video design by Jan Chambers and Jim Iseman is most impressive, and the song selection by Ellen Hemphill and Venice Manley was an evocative mix of traditional tunes with pungent ditties by Tom Waits, James Taylor, and Bob Dylan, among others.
Liza Mayer was practically iconic as Mary, once-Prospero-like but now impotent mistress of the desert isle; and Ian Magilton was terrific as her cheeky boatman Jack, who no longer has any waters to float his boat. Inki Storleer’s sometimes impenetrable accent undermined her effectiveness as Lena the self-centered broadcaster miraculously and quite mysteriously transported from the location of her latest reporting assignment to this desert island where the smallest amount of water, even tears and saliva, is precious enough to be collected and hoarded.
Ulrik Barfod, Christine Morris, and Mary Ruth all gave highly praiseworthy performances as Dave, Miriam, and Dolores — three more members of the Me Generation similarly relocated from the world they know and marooned with Lena on this arid uncharted island where they must learn again to work together, to care about each other, to produce the hot tears of compassion needed to end the seemingly endless drought.
The Hemphill/Hall script is typically enigmatic, but my best guess is that it condemns the absence of compassion in daily life. (Most of the time, the only tears we weep are for ourselves.) How can we watch report after report of war, famine, disaster, etc., and remain dry eyed?
“And Mary Wept” was one experimental drama that succeeded magnificently. The Duke Institute of the Arts should be commended for co-producing this home-grown production as part of its New Directions Series of Contemporary Visions and Voices by Living Artists.