Stage Holy Harem

A young girl believes she is a stigmata-covered Bride of Christ in 'Mariette in Ecstasy'

Ashley Lindstrom and Timothy Jo perform a scene from the Trinity University Theater Department's production of Mariette in Ecstacy. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Ron Hansen's 1991 novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, is about a stigmatic, a person whose body bears some or all of the marks of the passion of Christ, the five traditional wounds of the crucifixion and the crown of thorns. Mariette is a postulant at Our Lady of Sorrows Convent in upstate New York at the turn of the last century. The ecstasy of the title refers to the supernatural ecstasy of Catholic definition, in which the mind, focused completely on a religious object, suspends sensory activity and the body becomes unresponsive, often in an attitude of prayer.

The word also, and by design, invokes earthier interpretations. Mariette, like many female ecstatics before her, reports of decidedly erotic spiritual encounters - stories from the honeymoon of a Bride of Christ. Is she holy or hysterical? How does a community of believers confront the seemingly miraculous manifestation of its belief?

In the Director's Note in the program for Trinity University's production of Mariette, Assistant Professor of Drama Royd Climenhaga acknowledges that it was this spiritual-sexual tension, the collision of faith and passion, that he hoped to explore and expand by adapting Hansen's cinematic prose for the stage.

In a written exchange with the Current, Climenhaga emphasized that both he and Hansen intend this adaptation to speak about the broader experience of ecstasy, as manifested in love, in art, in moments of connection both religious and non. The play is not meant to proselytize, nor does it seem to favor any particular religious dogma even though it is set within the context of a Catholic convent.

Lindstrom as Mariette (right), and Valerie Cortinas as Sister Agnes.

That setting is uniquely suited to an exploration of the eroticization of faith. While the mystics of most religions report a sense of ecstatic union with the Divine, and the Lover and Beloved are terms in widespread use to denote the Seeker and the Sought, it can be argued that nowhere is the metaphor of romantic courtship and marriage used so concretely to describe the religious vocation as it is in the Catholic church. Both the novel and the play begin with a wedding, but neither are likely to make converts. If you're not already down with this fairly hard-core brand of mortification-as-devotion, you're likely to simply see the relationship between Mariette and her Christ as an abusive one.

The stunning innovation of this production is that it makes that relationship so literal, so palpable, without sacrificing all-important ambiguity. "God gives us just enough to seek him, and never enough to fully find him," says the convent's prioress. Climenhaga has the audacity to put Christ right on stage, to flesh out the metaphor: Christ and all his brides. Suddenly, it's a seraglio. The combination of arresting visual and philosophical imagery is overwhelming.

Mariette in Ecstasy

8pm Thu-Sat
Through Apr 23
$6 adult; $5 senior;
$4 student
Stieren Theater
Trinity University
One Trinity Place

Talk-back session with
Ron Hansen, Apr 22, following performance
Under the technical direction of Steve Gilliam, who served as production manager for this show, Trinity has earned a reputation for powerhouse scene design, and this set, by student Staci Walters, doesn't disappoint. Its autumnal starkness manages to evoke pagan nature, the grandeur of an ancient temple, and the asceticism of the cloister all at once. In symbiosis with Tim Francis' moody lighting, the production's visual elements create a pervasive sense of timelessness, suspending the audience in a multi-layered, chiaroscuro dream. The tricky ensemble work is handled well by the all-student cast. Ashley Lindstrom's fragile physicality makes Mariette simultaneously otherworldly and believable, Paul Calvin draws a nuanced portrait of restrained emotion as her father, and Noel Gaulin's standout, caricature-free performance as the endearing, odd, frail, and birdlike aged confessor grounds and humanizes the production.

Climenhaga privileges his sound design over Hansen's text in telling the story. The cast battles the near-constant underscoring throughout, and it's a fight they rarely win. In fact, the final "say" of the show belongs to Leonard Cohen, via Jeff Buckley's transcendent version of his "Hallelujah." "Now maybe there's a God above..." begins the last verse, while the light flares and fades on an empty stage that looks like the aftermath of a party, or a ritual sacrifice. Or both.

By Laurie Dietrich

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