Marissa Hank ‘20
With a collision of contemporary and medieval imaginations, The Smith College Department of Theatre presented Heidi Schreck’s play “Creature,” from Oct. 20-21. This production was directed by Isabelle Brown ‘19. From lighting design to set design to costume design, the entire cast and crew was student-led.
“Creature” was first produced in 2009 at the New Ohio Theatre in New York City. Discussing faith and its messengers, this new play handles these themes in a funny yet frightening way. This production further examines Schreck’s play in addition to the historical issues.
“Creature” explores the life of Margery Kempe who lived from 1373 to 1438. Kempe emerged in the midst of all the upset and unease within the Catholic church. She is credited with writing the first autobiography in the English language, “The Book of Margery Kempe.”
During her adult life, she was a rather controversial figure. She claimed to have a deep relationship with God and strongly believed she received many visions of Jesus Christ. After giving birth to the first of 14 children, Margery had a vision of Jesus that prompted her devotion to God. This first birth was also a traumatic one that was followed by visions of demons for almost a year before her initial vision of Christ.
After bearing her last child, she convinced her husband, John Kempe, to have a chaste marriage. She began wearing hair-shirts and eventually dressed completely in virginal white. During her years of devout devotion, she undertook many pilgrimages including ones to Jerusalem and Juliana of Norwich.
Kempe is most noted for her frequent emotional outbursts, specifically her uncontrollable public displays of weeping. Some historians claim that Margery might have faked her visions in order to relieve herself of motherly duties, while other historians suggest Kempe suffered from postpartum psychosis.
However, that would not have been on the minds of doctors’ in the 15th century. Additionally, there are arguments suggesting she dealt with life-long mental illness and that her initial vision was a symptom of said illness.
Due to a lack of knowledge about mental health issues in Medieval times and the Church’s lack of belief in her visions, Kempe was tried numerous times for heresy but was never charged. To this day, her autobiography remains one of the preeminent sources about life in the Middle Ages and the roles of women, religion and the church in everyday life.
Smith College’s production of Kempe’s story explores Schreck’s play in the context of traumatic childbirth, postpartum psychosis, and Kempe’s possible desire to be relieved of the “duties of motherhood.”
In response to Schreck’s “Creature,” The New York Times writes, “Saints can be hell to live with. That’s part of the comedy of ‘Creature.’ … Not that Margery, the wife of a prosperous brewer, is a saint. But she strives to be, even as she battles fleshy temptations like sex and food.”
Margery’s character is something of an actress; she likes to show off, to flirt, to dress up. Both Margery and her faith are showy, full of vanity, and not always quite convincing. The underlying irony of this play is that Margery enjoys the spectacle of Margery.
Smith’s student cast does an excellent job of portraying these characters historically and seriously while imbuing satirical tones when appropriate. Should we trust the “new” Margery, with her fasting and her weeping and her chastity fixation, or burn her with the other heretics? Can a woman of insatiable appetites end up an applicant for sainthood?
If you want answers to these questions, and you are willing to immerse yourself into life during the Middle Ages while laughing along the way, then you should grab a seat in Theater 14 in Mendenhall for the Oct. 26, 27 or 28 performances. It’s not too late to join Margery on her journey of faith.