My friendship with Melissa Altman dates back to middle school, and so when I heard she was stage managing for Claire Zajdel's play, Mother Maggie, premiering at the 2nd annual New York New Works Theatre Festival, I knew I wanted to support her. It was also my last opportunity to spend time with her before she left for her semester abroad to Prague, and I jumped on it.
What I didn't know, but quickly found out, was that Mother Maggie was one of five original works I'd be seeing that night. The New York New Works Theatre Festival was something of a friendly competition. The audience was asked to vote for the top two plays they saw that night, and the best plays would make it to SemiFinals at the end of August. I was given a ballot as I entered the theatre, which I stowed away in my wallet for safe keeping.
MOTHER MAGGIE by Claire Zajdel
Mother Maggie was the first show of the night, and I saved an aisle seat next to me, hoping Melissa would be able to join me in the audience for the remaining four shows. The stage was set up like an office in a religious school. Centerstage was a wooden desk covered with a laptop, various books, bibles, and a small Virgin Mary statue. There were two cushioned metal chairs for guests.
A red haired priest sat at the desk, typing on his laptop, when a nervous looking young woman entered. He smiled, greeting her warmly and complimenting her on the singing she had done earlier during mass. She was not in the mood for compliments, clearly desperate to get something off of her mind.
What could it be?
For some reason, my brain made the connection that Maggie must have been pregnant, and that's what she was waiting to tell the priest. I mean, the play's title was MOTHER Maggie, it wouldn't have been ridiculous.
But what Maggie wanted was a recommendation letter. And the priest was all too willing to sing her praises and recommend her for any vocation she sought out. Well, not any vocation...
Maggie wanted to join the priesthood, and needed the priest to recommend her, fully knowing the Catholic Church did not recognize female priests.
The priest rejected the idea immediately, surprising Maggie. She was devoted to her faith and felt that it was her calling from within.
Things got interesting when Maggie asked the priest to share his own testimony with her. He opened up, speaking of a mildly religious childhood where he thought Church was boring and that host tasted like cardboard. It wasn't until high school, when he worked as an altar boy, that he found himself actually listening to the sermons. When his father got sick with cancer, he turned to God to cope. His newfound closeness with God led him to a religious college, and it was there that he met a woman who would become the love of his life. She wanted to be a religion teacher, and had a faith far stronger than his. They dated for years, and she unfortunately got sick as well. But unlike his father, she did not survive. He had been saving for a ring to propose to her with, desiring a wife and children. But after her death, he turned to priesthood, resigning himself to a wifeless, childless existence.
Maggie knew then that the priest wanted out. He always wanted to be a married man and father, and as a priest he could never have that.
Maggie didn't abandon her pursuit, speaking to the priest on more than one occasion and leaving him with the contact information he'd need should he decide to send her recommendation letter.
The letter could mean excommunication for them both. But maybe, just maybe, it could grant both Maggie and the priest a chance at the lives they had always wanted.
I got the sense that Maggie's words had affected the priest, and if he wasn't going to write that letter, he was certainly considering it, and definitely reevaluating his life's choices.
PASSAGE by Mara Lee Gilbert
Melissa joined me as the stage was prepared for the next show.
A middle aged man sat on a wheel chair in front of a camera set up on a tripod. He looked ill, with gauze covering most of his body.
I wondered what was wrong with him. He could be a recovering burn victim, which would explain all of the bandages and the pain he seemed to be in.
He spoke into the camera, basically recording a video diary of his very limited remaining time. According to him, death was just as natural as life and should be documented all the same. He said that his death was to be the best part of his life.
As much as I've always been a fan of positivity, I didn't see anything positive in dying, and for someone to consider their life ending to be the best part of their life was, well, sad.
His nurse, Kathy, entered, and went through the highly painful process of changing his bandages, causing him to wince at even the slightest contact. She mentioned that the woman was on her way.
I had no idea who "the woman" was supposed to be, but somehow the thought made its way into my head that the woman was a prostitute. I don't know why I thought that. Maybe because Kathy seemed so disgusted by the idea of this woman coming over. I supposed a man on his death bed deserved some sex before he went.
The woman, as it turned out, was not a prostitute. She called herself a passage facilitator, and she looked and acted like a hippie, with long hair, a flowing dress, and an overly happy demeanor.
I was calling the woman on her bullshit before she got more than a few words in. I mean, a passage facilitator? It just seemed so hokey to me. We were talking about a person dying! I supported assisted suicide, especially in this man's case, but I didn't think euphemisms were going to help.
The man agreed with me. He had his death all planned out. He was turning fifty years old at midnight, and wanted to be lethally injected just as he completed his fiftieth year. The woman, however, intuited that the man was not quite ready to go. He had not yet experienced life devoid of pain, and she wanted him to die having been touched by another in an intimate way.
All of a sudden she sounded like a prostitute.
Sex was impossible for the ailing man. His severe skin condition meant that he felt extraordinary pain at any friction. Most of his body was covered in sores and blisters.
The woman simply dropped her underwear under her dress, and began to pleasure herself in full view of the man. I think he enjoyed it. Afterwards, she asked him if he was in pain, and for the first time he was able to answer that he was not.
He decided that he no longer wanted to die. He told the woman to relay to Kathy his breakfast wishes for the following day.
But at breakfast time, the man had already died of natural causes. Although I am the last person to believe in any sort of alternative medicine, I couldn't shake the feeling that the woman had given the man what he needed to die in peace.
And his gratefulness was preserved on a film he invited her to watch at the time of her own death. She had facilitated so many passages, she didn't deserve to die alone.
ANGIE JACKSON THE MUSICAL by Vincent E. Kee
A man rolled a phonograph on to the stage. A phonograph! It looked extremely old and breakable, and yet when he set it to play, it amplified a song as if it were brand new.
The same man walked all over the stage, pausing only to place more super cool artifacts about the stage. He must have realized we were all wondering what was up, because he introduced himself as the curator for The Museum of Interesting Things. I knew that I seriously had to pay a visit to this museum that had somehow eluded me after a lifetime of living in New York City.
In any case, the props really helped set the scene for a 1930s New York City.
The musical was narrated by Louis Armstrong. I knew it had to be him the second I heard his voice. If I closed my eyes, I felt I could hear him sing What a Wonderful World.
But the story wasn't about Louis Armstrong. It was about a little girl named Angie Jackson. Orphaned at a young age, she went on to sing and dance her way to fame, collecting friends wherever she went.
The show featured a lot of kids. And I mean real kids, not adults playing younger. The little girl who played eight year old Angie was just about the cutest thing I've ever seen. And she could sing and dance too!
In a little over twenty minutes, Angie Jackson The Musical told a fun story about one amazing kid's equally amazing life in spite of adversity. And after the heaviness of Passage, I was glad for some more upbeat material.
CARPE DIEM AIRLINES by Daniel Curzon
A one man show. The man in question sat on a chair acting as his airplane seat. He began a conversation with the person who was sat next to him, but there was only one actor on stage the entirety of the show. The more annoying the man got, the more I questioned his sanity.
I became convinced that he wasn't speaking to anyone at all, but was actually schizophrenic. He inquired as to his neighbor's sexuality, gender, and hobbies on multiple occasions, getting only terse, reluctant responses at best.
Melissa was growing increasingly uncomfortable, her flight to Prague days away. She had always been a bit scared to fly, not of heights necessarily, but of all that could go wrong. I sent her a sympathetic look, knowing she was praying her upcoming flight didn't have any obnoxious passengers.
The play's ending was up to us. Really! We were actually encouraged to cheer for the ending we liked best. Personally? None of the options really floated by boat. I was still pretty sure a schizophrenic man committed suicide aboard a plane and may or may not have been conversing with his neighbor for the duration of the flight.
ACROPHOBIA by Mitchell VanLandingham
Another plane! Melissa was not happy.
A Young man and woman are sat next to each other on a plane, the man reading calmly and the woman doing her best not the hyperventilate. The man asked if the woman was okay, the woman replying that she had a fear of flying. The man reassured the woman that he used to have the same fear, before realizing he was fine as long as he had a window seat. This did little to comfort the woman.
Together, the woman with the active fear managed to terrify her neighbor to the point where they were both convinced they were going to crash.
Melissa was wondering if this were some sign from above not to board her flight.
Ultimately, the plane landed safely, the man and woman slightly embarrassed at their shared moment of irrational panic.
P.S. Acrophobia is NOT a fear of heights.
Leaving the theatre, I felt like I had truly gotten five shows for the price of one. And I had! And what shows did I vote for?
That's one secret I'll never tell.