By Sarah Downs

In her solo piece Magdalene: I am the utterance of my nameSylvia Milo challenges received notions of the identity of Mary Magdalene, seeking to restore an unjustly silenced female voice to public consciousness, correcting historical inaccuracy and malicious mischaracterization.  Mary Magdalene (the original Divine Miss M) was not, in fact, the prostitute we have been told she was.  Rather, she was one of the disciples of  Jesus Christ, equal in stature to her male compatriots, and indeed of greater import for being the first person to whom post-crucifixion Christ revealed himself.  So naturally they had to shut her up.

Mary Magdalene has been more canvas than  character in her own narrative, as her ‘identity’ has been projected onto her through the eyes of a handful of men centuries after the fact.  A convenient accusation by a 6th century Pope that she was actually a prostitute swiftly devalued her.  Four gospels written by men, all disciples vying with Mary for Christ’s attention carefully sidelined her.   (With friends like this, who needs enemies?)  Her own writings, of course, mysteriously disappeared.

Magdalene started off well, in darkened quiet, as Milo moved through a series of poses which, as they repeated in ever increasing rhythm, revealed themselves to be impersonations of images of Biblical Marys as represented in art — a Pieta here, an Annunciation there.  It was oddly captivating, blurring image and reality, past and present, into a veritable Salute to the Sun.  This kind of effective gesture reappeared periodically throughout the show.

Alas, the work stumbled a bit from there.  Milo passed through vignettes against a series of projected backdrops, with super titles indicating what we would be seeing, accompanied by abstract compositions, alternately dramatic and ghostly, played on a variety of instruments.  The natural sounds of water and sand were particularly compelling in these quiet moments.  As she inhabited different characters, Milo mimed key narratives from the Gnostic Gospels, and the Gospel of Mary — long buried in the desert until very recently — uttering rediscovered poetry that reconstructs a more nuanced, dimensional portrait of the Magdalene.   We also heard these beautiful passages in voice over.

The elements of storytelling are abundantly there – poetry, compelling music, hypnotic projections, dim lighting, wafting veils of fabric — yet it somehow doesn’t click.  Perhaps it was just the growing pains of process, the time for a work to gel, but it felt clumsy and self-indulgent.  Some of the vignettes lacked coherence and direction.  They seemed an ending unto themselves, not a stop along a journey to some kind of revelation.  We missed the catharsis of connecting past sins to modern day discrimination.

It’s a pity because the material holds such rich promise.  Indeed an exploration of Mary Magdalene’s true identity, and her role in the development of the Christian church could not possibly be more timely, given that the Baptist church just a few weeks ago barely voted down a ban on female pastors.  Yes, every day we continue to experience the legacy of the silencing of the female voice in Christian history.

After almost an hour and a half of sitting in the dark trying to make sense of the movement and how it related to the poetry, including an awkward cave scene, a truly cringe-inducing “Moon” circle, and what felt like 30 minutes of an incoherent punk rave with no edge, under bright lights, all I could feel was annoyed.  And then the choking clouds of fog.  It was like an artsy love-in without the LSD but with the hallucinations.

I left the theater bewildered and breathless – and sadly, uninspired.

Magdalene: I am the utterance of my name:  created and performed by Sylvia Milo and Nathan Davis with script and direction by Milo and music and sound design by Davis.  With Janice Orlandi (movement director), Natalie Lomonte (choreographer),  Monica Duncan (video and projection design) , Magdalena Dąbrowska (costume design), and Nick Houfek (lighting design).

At the HERE Theater (145 Sixth Ave.) Juje 16 – 30.  For Tickets go to www.HERE.org.  Run time 75 (but really it’s more like 90) minutes, no intermission.  PLEASE note:  Rosco fog used.