She's All That 

Great women from history meet and mingle in Magical Acts Ritual Theater.

When legendary voodoo queen Marie Laveau wasn't dispensing advice to New Orleans socialites -- mop a house's floors with urine to halt a philandering husband, for instance -- she was helping slaves escape on the underground railroad. And dancing with live snakes under the moon. And traveling back in time to counsel 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen on the intricacies of church bureaucracy. Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene knocks back a few with Janis Joplin after a concert, in a bar. Performing, Janis tells Mary, is like having sex with 25,000 people at once. Mary nods. She gets it.

In Heretics, Harlots & Heroes -- the latest production from East Bay-based Magical Acts Ritual Theater, opening October 15 at Belladonna in Berkeley -- seven famous women leapfrog twenty centuries, crisscrossing under extraordinary circumstances. Mae West and Marilyn Monroe compete in a seductiveness contest, judged by Hildegard and the Magdalene. Joplin comforts a widowed Mary Shelley.

"It's a completely random combination of people, and that's part of what makes this ritual theater," says creator and director Robin Dolan, who when calling for auditions this spring asked each actor, male or female, to portray a heroic historical figure, male or female, of his or her own choosing. "Ironically, it turns out that our cast is all women. Perhaps that says something about the need for seeing more inspirational women in our world."

Founded in 1995, Magical Acts merges contemporary theatrical techniques with ancient spiritual ones such as divination and shamanism. "Sometimes regular theater just approaches a production as being a fiction to create," Dolan notes. By contrast, "ritual theater should create some sort of transformation. It's a matter of recognizing the impact of the themes of a work and doing something about that impact. Some ways we've done this in the past is to have altars for the audience to visit. Sometimes it's a matter of putting a ritual into the play" -- for instance, Magical Acts' version of A Midsummer Night's Dream included a wedding ritual, although as Shakespeare wrote it this action happens only implicitly, offstage.

Early on, Dolan guided cast members on imaginary visits to their characters' grave sites, and into trances in order to build scenes and bond with the characters. This didn't go without a few hitches. Set on playing Isadora Duncan, dancer Kaerla Fellows realized abruptly that Duncan "was who my parents would have wanted me to play," and switched to Joplin. Visionary nun Hildegard -- the first female cleric whom the church officially allowed to compose music -- appealed to singer June Vance, who in one scene, clad in a black habit, intones that "hell is a place with no music." But Vance chafed against Hildegard's noted homophobia, sexism, and classism. Researching Mary Magdalene proved difficult for Angelique Heddings, who plays her, because "anything written about Mary is done with great bias," Dolan explains, "by people wanting to make her into a whore, or now a goddess. So Angelique's scenes reflect the struggle to know who Mary is, and how much Angelique wanted to find her."

It is the slipperiness of such labels that fuels this play, just as it flavors women's history. One day's heretic or harlot is tomorrow's hero -- give or take a Reformation or two.

Heretics, Harlots & Heroes plays at Belladonna, 2436 Sacramento St., Berkeley, Oct. 15, 16, 17, 22, and 23, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. General admission, $16-$26 sliding scale; students and seniors, $13-$21 sliding scale. Information/reservations: 510-540-9105 or Magicalacts.org.

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