Medieval convents were places where monastic women lived ascetic and cloistered lives devoted to the solemnity of prayer and contemplation. These nuns enjoyed self-sustaining communities free of the male gaze, in which they could learn to read and write, and operate their own hierarchy absent male power. Convents were, in fact, the only institutional option for female education during the Middle Ages, providing a precious, safe space for women unlike any other. Today, many active convents, or monasteries, across the world remain open to travelers seeking a safe and affordable place for rest, quiet solace, and reflection. Slowly, each of the women reveals more about what has brought them here, and how they might emerge more in touch with the divine and centered in their own gender and sexuality. Well, therein lies one of several problems with the play.
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Jessica Dickey opens her medieval comedy at A.R.T./New York Theatres.
Whether it's Claire of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, or Madonna of pop stardom, the women of Jessica Dickey's The Convent aren't praying to idols; rather they're inhabiting them in all their fierce, feminine glory. Every woman who checks into the convent is on a quest for inner peace, and the sage Mother Abbess Wendy vanden Heuvel convinces them that medieval robes, mild hallucinogens, and communion with specially assigned ancient mystics called Nomens could be the key to unlocking it. In many ways, the residents of the convent are the same women who uncomfortably douse themselves in cultural appropriation at places like Kripalu and Buddhist meditation retreats — and Dickey certainly allows a fair amount of ridicule to shine through such earnest 21st-century faux mysticism. Even so, neither Dickey nor her equally sardonic director Daniel Talbott ever mocks the quest for enlightenment itself. Dickey's characters are lost, flawed, and habitually absurd, but you hope they find whatever it is they're searching for in coming to this strange place. Mother Abbess's spiritual philosophy can be summarized by the word "sovereignty": the kind of self-possession and personal freedom that she believes every woman should seek and that most women, conditioned by patriarchal society, lack. It's a pattern she's observed in the revolving door of residents at her beloved French convent designed by Raul Abrego like a peaceful garden surrounded by medieval stone on which Katherine Freer can display her surrealist projections. In this round of sovereignty seekers, we meet Tina played by the hilariously motormouthed Brittany Anikka Liu who dwells on her psoriasis and its effect on her sex life; Bertie a sympathetic Amy Berryman , a cult escapee who tries to come to terms with her love for fellow resident Dimlin Annabel Capper, carrying inherent strength in her bellowing voice ; Wilma Lisa Ramirez embodying the convent's most comforting presence , a nun who has not been able to pray since her mother's death; and Jill the luminous Margaret Odette , a successful attorney who finds herself trapped by the confines of traditional marriage. Then there's Patti Samantha Soule laying her character groundwork with an agitated entrance , a derisive return customer whose mysterious motives seemed to be wrapped up in stirring the pot which quickly includes a love affair with Jill.
In Dickey's new play, a group of women go on a retreat to live like nuns in the Middle Ages and are baptized with 80s pop, female mysticism, hallucinogens and sex. The Convent is a toothy dark comedy about desire, devotion, and the mystery of intrinsic divinity. Steven Chaikelson. Note there is no late seating for this event. Tickets are available online and by phone.