4/3/2021 THE MOTHER OF GOD VISITS HELL Merely Players Presents
In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky describes an epic 4th century poem in which the Virgin Mary journeys to Hell to comfort the tormented souls there. Struck by their suffering, she pleads with God to have mercy. A war between God’s angels and Satan’s minions ensues.
Of course, no such poem exists, but Atlanta playwright Daniel Guyton took many years to rectify that literary “gap,” creating The Mother of God Visits Hell, an epic undertaking that consumed ten years of his life. His ambition was to create a classically-structured Iambic Pentameter rhyming-verse play that explored Dostoevsky’s themes of sin and redemption, mercy and sacrifice, and those old favorites, pride and prejudice. Merely Players Presents gave us a two-day Zoom performance of the play, which, of course, I didn’t see until the final day.
My first reaction is that Mr. Guyton succeeded in created an elegantly poetic work, with rapturous rhythms and clever rhymes, as wonderful and lyrical as his ambitions. As a piece of Zoom Theatre, the Merely Players production hits all the right notes, with performances that sell the characters, the mythology, and the story. As a piece of theatre, however, the work is good, but needs some tweaking to enter the heavenly realm of great.
My biggest problems with the dramaturgy are the fairly thin characters, ideal for a mythological allegory but not so much for a compelling piece of theatre. Of course, constrained by the demands of the verse, the characters all sound very similar, with word choice dictated more by what rhymes and what fits the meter. The Mother of God is merciful and heroic, sacrificing her own eternity for the sake of the underserving residents of “The Pit.” The battling angels are mostly one note – Michael is angry and stubborn, Gabriel is bombastic and bellicose, Uriel is gentle and musical, Azrael is grumpy and distant. God himself comes across as less omnipotent benevolence than narcissistic autocrat. Even Satan is written as only condescending and devious. The minions Moloch and Abaddon are completely interchangeable (masks excepted).
All this being said, the cast and production were able to truly bring this story, this language, to life.
Let me see if I can recap the story in a way that respects the mythology. The Mother of God, as per Dostoevsky’s description, convinces God (here God and Jesus are one and the same) to allow her to visit Hell to offer comfort to the tortured souls. God reluctantly agrees (Mary is his Mother after all) but only if the Archangel Michael accompanies her to “watch her back.” In the caverns outside hell, Satan easily traps and disarms Michael and leads Mary on a tour of the fiery pit. There, Mary is struck at the eternal nature of the torment, all sins punished equally – the mass murderer doesn’t burn any hotter than the mere blasphemer. Mary bargains with Satan – she is willing to sell her soul if all those in the pit are released and returned to life. It’s too good a deal for even the devil to pass up.
Meanwhile, back in heaven, God is being serenaded (and soothed) by Uriel, when he hears of Mary’s sacrifice. The ancient angel Azrael assures Him there is nothing that can be done. Undeterred, God sends Uriel and Gabriel to win Mary’s release.
Of course, it isn’t too long before the fiery pit is refilled, as the freed souls wreak havoc on humanity, slaying with wild abandon. But Mary’s Will will not be corrupted, and, after numerous swordfights and even more rhymed couplets, everyone, Satan included, find themselves redeemed and basking in the Power and the Glory and (especially) the Mercy of Mary’s omnipotent son.
As I said above, Merely Players has collected a cast that truly soars. Kate Guyton is especially good as Mary, giving her enough sass to sharpen her “Standard BVM” virginal aura. Jesse Kuipers is wonderful as Satan, relishing every evil thought, every nasty rhyme. Cameron Smith is a heavenly-voiced Uriel, singing like an Angel (you knew that description was coming, didn’t you?) and showing us the truly gentle side of the heavenly host. The entire ensemble gels beautifully, and even the smallest roles are elegant and memorable. For the record, here is the entire cast, all deserving kudos –
God - Louis Alfred
Mary - Kate Guyton
Satan - Jessie Kuipers
Michael - Fred Galyean
Gabriel - Jerrell Brown
Uriel - Cameron Smith
Cobbler - Brad Corbin
Cobbler's Wife - Courtney Loner
Abaddon - Matthew Carter Jones
Moloch - Josh Vining
Azrael - Cameron Lafoy
Souls in Torment - Courtney Loner, Matthew Carter Jones, Josh Vining, Cameron LaFoy, Savannah Rootes, Kathleen Seconder & Daniel Guyton
Most excellent use was also made of the Zoom platform, with virtual backgrounds keeping the locations clear, and Greek-God-inspired costuming keeping it in the realm of myth. Swordfights were Jib-Jab inspired spectacles, with some recognizable hit movie conflicts adjusted to carry the faces of the Zoom cast. It was all a bit cheesy, but it also worked and provided some adrenalin when it was most welcome.
Daniel Guyton has written an ambitious and (mostly) successful play that may one day see (after) life on a stage, one I’d look forward to attending. It may be churlish of me to suggest another few cycles through the word processor, since the play has been over ten years in the creation so far. But then, when you are writing about eternity, what’s a few more years added to that ten? (Asking for a friend.)
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #MerelyPlayersPresent #MotherOfGodVisitsHell )