Sometimes the only way to describe something mental is physically. That’s what We Sail On In Darkness, a physical theater play debuting February 9 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, does for four historical women who saw the unexplainable.
The play details the visions of “renowned mystics” Julian of Norwich, Angela of Foligno, Martyred Perpetua, and Hildegard of Bingen, emphasizing both the act of suffering that comes with such a gift and burden, as well as the feminine strength each employed to continue on.
The mostly female cast ranges from age 26 to 60, working in parallel with one male actor (Benjamin Watson) who plays every other character. Most of the choreography and stage production was also completed by female artisans.
“We are very excited to invite people, especially women, to follow us along this journey — using music, movement, and color — to rediscover the courage, joy, and suffering of these women whose stories are often overlooked,” said playwright Ruthie Buescher in a release. “The concept of physical theater may feel very new to some audiences, but it’s actually based on some of the oldest traditions of theater, and we are so excited to bring this refreshing, creative way of telling a story to the San Antonio theater audience.”
Physical theater isn’t the clearest way to tell a story — the acrobatic, interpretive style that sometimes includes speech is certainly not a TED Talk — but the surrealism these women became known for lends itself to the style. This takes the mantra of show-don’t-tell to new heights befitting, say, the drama of Hildegard’s spiraling mandala illustrations or the intrepidness of Julian’s embrace of an usual form for expression for women (writing), which we now take for granted.
“The words of the mystics are central to the play — their own writing is an integral part of the script,” said Buescher. “But interpreting their journeys through the lens of physical theater felt like the perfect way to blend visions and reality across time.”
Each of the four characters, though at different stages of life in the play, are ancient to us and are well-known only in special niches — usually religion and deep study of the humanities. All lived at least periods of their lives in notable seclusion.
After miraculously recovering from an illness that nearly sent her to her deathbed, Julian of Norwich (Cynthia Neri) wrote the first English work confirmed to come from a woman. Similarly, Hildegard of Bingen (Katrin Blucker Ludwig) is not just an early female composer, but thought to be the first named composer whose work still exists, known for unusual melodies that were freer than most Gregorian chant.
Angela of Foligno (Michelle Bumgarner) and Perpetua (Courtney Johnson) were Desert Mothers, Christians who lived in solitude in Egypt, Israel or Palestine, and Syria, part of the group that inspired Buescher while researching on her own Texan retreat in the Hill Country. The play emphasizes public reception to Angela, who was thought to be insane and wrote with “anguish,” and Perpetua’s treatment during her imprisonment and execution for converting to Christianity, chronicled in her diary. Both started their lives as high-born, common people who later converted as adults.
According to the play, Julian represents the suffering of the body, Angela represents the suffering of the mind, Perpetua represents suffering due to others’ actions, and Hildegard represents suffering through the awareness of others’ suffering.
“I don’t need to elaborate on how important the stories of these women are to our moment in time — we’re all intensely cognizant of how wrong things are,” says Buescher. “But there is something uniquely beautiful about watching these women slip in and out of time and interact with each other. As they speak to each other, they speak to us and remind us that we stand on their shoulders — and we don’t stand alone.”
There will be seven performances of We Sail On In Darkness:
- February 9-10, 7 pm
- February 11, 7 pm (ASL-interpretation)
- February 15, 7 pm (performance for students)
- February 16, 7 pm (pay what you can)
- February 17, 7 pm
- February 18, 2 pm
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church is located at 315 E Pecan Street. More information about the play, including a link to buy tickets ($25), is available at wesailonindarkness.com.