A German playwright's take on religious fanaticism has trouble establishing what cause it's dying for.
Contemporary German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One, staged in Chicago by Sideshow Theatre Company four years ago, was a darkly amusing fable about a man who discovers he’s hideous but gets more than he bargained for with a handsome new face. Von Mayenburg’s more recent play Martyr, currently onstage in its U.S. premiere at Steep Theatre, is less fanciful but similarly concerns a dramatic transformation—in this case, a teenage boy who inexplicably turns into a religious zealot. Unlike The Ugly One, though, Martyr offers little transformative insight.
When angry young Benjamin (Brando Crawford) begins spouting Bible verses, refuses to wear a Speedo in swim class on modesty grounds and starts acting out in protest in sex ed, it’s a headache for his mother and teachers, a challenge for libertine classmate Lydia (Claire Saxe) and a potential way in for Georg (Travis Coe), an awkward outcast who desperately wants to be Benjamin’s friend, or more. But teacher Erika (Kendra Thulin), a self-professed atheist, takes Benjamin’s instantaneous conversion personally, becoming obsessed with finding a way to prove him wrong.
Director Joanie Schultz’s production is well staged and acted with conviction, but translator Maja Zade’s English dialogue sounds stilted and artificial—which worked for her translation of the otherworldly Ugly One, but trips us up in this more realistically played parable. And parable it may be, but that doesn’t make it easier to swallow the improbable actions of every character—most of all Benjamin; if there are motivations to be found for him in von Mayenburg’s script, the otherwise engaging Crawford isn’t sharing them.
And Martyr presents its religious arguments in a way that suggests our minds are supposed to be blown by them, which is enough to make one wonder if something has truly been lost in translation here. Maybe in Germany these kinds of verse-versus-verse debates are revelatory. But to my own experience, as someone who grew up religious and has become less so in adulthood, this sounds like dorm-room discourse; von Mayenburg’s flattening borders on offensive to believers and atheists alike.
Steep Theatre Company. By Marius von Mayenburg. Directed by Joanie Schultz. With Brando Crawford, Kendra Thulin, Travis Coe, Cindy Marker. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.