Home Art & Culture Review: Mother Teresa Sings, in Drag and With Doubts

Review: Mother Teresa Sings, in Drag and With Doubts

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Theater in Quarantine, a company that since March has been streaming experimental works from its founder’s closet, turns the constraints of its odd conditions into a marvelous style.

One of those constraints, of course, is space: The 4-foot-by-8-foot-by-2-foot closet demands shipshape compositions, big-gestured and graphic, that wind up translating beautifully to screens large and small.

Another is time: There is only so much aerobic multitasking that Joshua William Gelb, whose closet it is, can endure alone in his East Village apartment. The rest of the production team operates remotely.

That workout has never been as evident as it is in Heather Christian’s “I Am Sending You the Sacred Face,” which had its premiere on Theater in Quarantine’s YouTube channel on Monday night. Though less than 40 minutes long, it left Gelb panting in the post-show discussion.

It also left me wanting more, which is not usually my response to such obscure, if transfixing, material. Note to those who traffic in the avant-garde: concision is your friend.

But for those who traffic in history and hagiography, concision can be problematic, suggesting a reliance on Wikipedia. “Sacred Face,” an “expressionistic musical portrait” of Mother Teresa, addresses that problem by making each minute as dense as possible: verbally, visually, musically and theatrically. It is a layer cake so rich that the self-abnegating Albanian-born nun, whose work with India’s dying poor led to a Nobel Prize during her lifetime and canonization after, would surely never touch it.

That paradox is useful here. How can we understand a woman who took her vow of poverty to such extremes that it came to seem like opulence — or even, to some, psychopathology?

In earlier works including the oratorio “Animal Wisdom,” Christian has demonstrated an insider’s comfort with complex religious thought that makes her a natural fit for this subject. Her restlessly intelligent lyrics, glancingly rhymed and set to gorgeous drones of melody, acknowledge the mysteries of the character and also a range of possible responses to her.

“I like my rotten bulgur, I delight in days of hunger,” this Mother Teresa sings in a number called “Poverty Talk,” leaving you to decide whether her self-denial is a kind of heroism or masochism.

Actually, it’s a simplification of the show’s complex methodology to say that Mother Teresa sings that number. Rather, the entire show — songs, speeches and musical accompaniment — has been recorded by Christian, who remains just a voice throughout. Onscreen we see only Gelb, in homemade drag, lip-syncing the libretto while performing intricate choreography by Katie Rose McLaughlin that’s a little bit classical Indian, a little bit vogueing Madonna.

As realized by the scenographer Kristen Robinson and the video designer Stivo Arnoczy, the live image is multiplied and kaleidoscoped into compositions that resemble Byzantine altar pieces with their formal framing and visual echoes. If you have never envisioned Mother Teresa as a man with chest hair in a low-cut sari made of sequins and painter’s tape, gyrating to songs about poverty as an “exalted state,” now you don’t have to.

And yet “Sacred Face” is not outrageous merely for the shock or delight of it. Christian specifies drag in the script (and alludes to it in the title) with serious intent; indeed, the production has hired Dito van Reigersberg, sometimes known as Martha Graham Cracker, to provide “drag dramaturgy.” In the complexity of a man playing a woman, the show means to illuminate the contradictions of Mother Teresa’s self-presentation: At home only in the Calcutta slums, she made her biggest splash in Stockholm; firm in her beliefs in public, she remained, in private, tormented for 50 years by doubt.

I do wish the story had leaned harder into that contradiction — not just in characterization and theatrical style, but in argument. Mother Teresa was, after all, a very public figure.

But except for a preshow recording of her Nobel acceptance speech, in which she emphasized her adamant opposition to abortion — while avoiding mention of her equally adamant opposition to birth control — “Sacred Face” keeps political controversy at a distance. It leaves the audience to intuit the paradox of a woman born into comfortable circumstances who, while easing the suffering of the poor, did little to help prevent their poverty. Why should she, if poverty was so exalted?

For Theater in Quarantine, that may have sounded like a familiar problem. Its constraints refashioned as principles include not just time and space but also money. “Sacred Face,” produced with Theater Mitu, had a budget of $2,500, a pittance; St. Teresa’s halo is a repurposed LED ring light.

Even so, the level of sophistication attempted within that budget may be stretching the company’s abilities and aesthetics too far. To apprehend Christian’s lyrics in one listen requires clearer sound than they get here. (Turning on the captioning helps.) And the principle of live performance streamed from a real location — so evident in lower-tech Theater in Quarantine productions like “The 7th Voyage of Egon Tichy,” in July — is to some extent undercut by the digital video processing, however impressive. Parts of “Sacred Face” seem to be coming from a computer, not a closet.

These are unavoidable growing pains for a theater adapting a philosophy formed in haste to an ongoing emergency. Also adapting to success. Each of the company’s 16 productions since March, seven of them dance presentations, has drawn a bigger audience than the last, starting with a handful of viewers and growing to several thousand. More performances of each work are now offered: Livestreams of “Sacred Face” continue through Friday, after which a recorded version will remain available indefinitely.

To the extent that Theater in Quarantine’s growth allows it to produce beguiling niche works like “Sacred Face,” I can’t but applaud the progress. But as Mother Teresa discovered, playing on larger stages comes with its own contradictions. How long before the company finds that its vow of poverty is too costly to keep?

I Am Sending You the Sacred Face
Livestreamed performances Dec. 16 and Dec. 18 on YouTube; a recording will remain available on YouTube; joshuawilliamgelb.com/theater-in-quarantine

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