Review: The Art of Martyrdom (a Comedy) by Rita Anderson, presented by Different Stages
by David Glen Robinson


GIna Houston (photo by Steve Rogers)

The Art of Martyrdom (A Comedy) is a play of magical realism, hybridity, social activism, sexual freedom, creativity, and church mockery, but not much so much about conflict and resistance. Playwright Rita Anderson often employs magical realism to shoehorn a wide array of issues into the themes of her plays, but this one gets to the far reaches of magical realism. The frame of the play is the story of Hrosvitha, a cloistered nun in the convent of Gandersheim, where she was the historian of the order and the convent. Because she wrote plays, religious but not necessarily with the prior approval of the order, she's considered the first female playwright. Karen Jambon directs.


Our story picks up in the cell of Hrosvita (Gina Houston), where she's using wooden swords to practice combat with her materialized muse (Hayley J. Armstrong in a twinkly fairy costume). Hrosvitha;s private hobby is eventually found out. She and her out-of-school playlets are taken to the abbess, played to perfection by Bernadette Nason, and ultimately to the bishop  (Adam Rodriguez).


At first only Hrosvitha can see the muse, which gives that mystical creature muse entrée to every other scene in the play, where she comments directly to the audience on the issues of the moment. This trope introduces and elaborates the approach of interpreting history through the lens of twenty-first-century values and politics, a theatre trope active for quite a few years now. Television commentator Bill Maher has more than once decried the practice as justification of one’s own contemporary views, a shallow intellectual practice akin to  tearing down statues, which he also decries.


A better choice might have been to evoke Armstrong as the creativity muse more sparingly, perhaps only in the significant moments when Hrosvitha’s creativity cleverly brings forth a sentence or a few words to deflect the abbess, turn away the bishop, or soothe Sister Clarice (C.B. Feller). That would have reinforced the central themes of the play. What the audience receives instead is running hip-hop stand-up comedy commentary on every goddammed dialog. The effect throughout was less a mosaic of hybridity and more a mirror shattered on the flagstone floor with each shard reflecting a partial image. Worse, the time-warping and self-referential esthetic overexploited a powerful actor who deserves better.


Bernadette Nason, Gina Houston, Hayley J. Armstrong (photo by Steve Rogers)


The subplot of the woman seeking refuge in the convent and elevated by the piety of Hrosvitha seemed grafted onto the play. We already knew that Hrosvitha was pious and humanistic. Kristin Fern Johnson’s hoochie-coochie go-go dance  in medieval burlap rags (again imposing twenty-first century values on the tenth century) was unnecessary and thoroughly discordant. Hybridity has standards, you know, that elevate it from mishmash.


Adam Rodriguez as the bishop, fresh from La Fenice's Disco Dracula, came in possessed by gluttony this time. That little trait emerged as an accurate portrayal of corruption in the medieval church (nowhere near as bad as later haute Renaissance church corruption). The convent awaited the bishop’s advent with fraught hopes , dreading his booming, commanding patriarchal presence. Rodriguez alone among the cast was capable of rendering the creative fairy’s flitterings and chirpings mere annoyances. He revealed himself to be a surprisingly fair god of judgement for Hrosvitha’s work, guiding the convent past its fear to a reading and performance of her latest playlet. That work was a winner, a declaration of historical faith and devotion in the face of impending brutal martyrdom at the hands of the Romans. Hrosvitha revealed her fascination with such autos da fé in discussions with the muse. Without giving away the ending of The Art of Martyrdom (A Comedy), I can comment that the play stops rather than ends.


We find ourselves wanting to know more about Hrosvitha. This unfulfilled desire is perhaps the essence of the play’s moderate success, ensured by dint of the efforts of the cast and director.


Bernadette Nason, Hayley J. Armstrong, Gina Houston (photo by Steve Rogers)



Two other aspects of note: first, Hrosvitha’s playlets were little gems of stories, almost plays within a play, though not quite. In this production they were more important than the manifested muse, for they illuminated the greater issues despite the surrounding obscure forest of hybrid images. The second note concerns stagecraft for the playlets. The characters commanded to enact them were literate students and servants of the convent who nevertheless read their lines haltingly from the scripts held close before their faces. They made slow wooden hand gestures when prompted to do so. The dialogues were presented so as to strike the audience with tongue-in-cheek humor. These  twenty-first-century naturalistic actors evidenced considerable creative effort and innovative acting. Kudos to Oskar Brian, Kristin Fern Johnson, Jessica Medina, and director Karen Jambon.


The premiere went without a hitch, a great credit to stage manager Suzanne Smith and the production and design staff, who frequently work at the Vortex.


The Art of Martyrdom (A Comedy) runs until July 9, 2023 at the Vortex on Manor road in east Austin.

The Art of Martyrdom (a Comedy)
by Rita Anderson
Different Stages

June 23 - July 15, 2023
The Vortex
2307 Manor Road
Austin, TX, 78722

June 23 – July 9, 2023

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd

Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 6 p.m.

$15, $25 $35

512-478-5282 (Wednesday through Sunday)