‘Martyr’ leaves audience in silent awe
Marius von Mayenburg’s “Martyr” is not for the weak-hearted. Following one boy’s tempestuous journey into the depths of Christian fundamentalism, the show evaluates the more antiquated beliefs in monotheistic faith and contemporary religious extremism we see in today’s society. The production, which was the Theater Department’s second show of the semester, dove into the play’s sensitive topics with finesse and left the audience needing time to reflect on their ragged emotions.
The production opens in an eerie haze: swimsuit-clad figures seem to float on the stage, swimming. While this seems innocent enough, this scene will later prove to be the audience’s first dive into the difficult premise of the play: what leniencies should be made for religion and where religion goes too far. We soon meet Benjamin (Raphael Stigliano ’18), a young boy who we learn has stopped swimming in gym class due to his scantily-clad female classmates offending his Christian beliefs, much to his mother’s (Adrianne Krstansky) chagrin. This seems innocent enough, for one can imagine an adolescent boy struggling with sexuality, hormones raging. However, it soon becomes apparent that the innocence Benjamin’s teacher, Mr. Dorflinger (Alexander Pepperman), his principal, Mr. Batzler (Alex Jacobs), and his mother have been relying on so heavily to explain away Benjamin’s actions belie the zealotry taking the boy over.
It seems every adult in Benjamin’s life works to delegitimize his growing religious fervor — all except his teacher, Erika Roth (Jamie Semel ’17). Ms. Roth’s teachings on sexual education and evolution, as well as her attempts to warn the other adults in Benjamin’s life of the danger of his extremism, offend the core principles of Benjamin’s beloved Bible and cause him to target her directly in his quest to follow the Bible exclusively. Benjamin justifies himself by highlighting questionable Bible passages, pushing the audience to question the ways society handles young people and their zealotry.
When we first meet the play’s ultimate heroine, guidance counselor and science teacher Erika Roth, she does not seem to be the answer to our prayers. Rather, her characterization is almost cloying — just another liberal teacher who frowns on religion and believes a bit too much in the power of the system. While Ms. Roth continues to attempt to staunch Benjamin’s extremism, her role falls to the background for the middle of the play. This allows the audience to fall deeper into Benjamin’s tortured consciousness as he struggles with God and his teenage lustful desires. The bare set — empty save for a desk and a few perfunctory props — forces those watching to confront Benjamin’s reconcilement between his emotions and the laws he reads in the Bible — there is nowhere else to look but at Benjamin and his radicalizing ideas (in many cases depicted by the ensemble).
Despite the few speaking roles, the ensemble, in tone with the music and lighting, created a heady atmosphere which accentuated the all-encompassing effects of religion. As the play progresses, its scenes become more animalistic in nature. Literally, in a scene where Ms. Roth fights with Benjamin about evolution, he toys with her fraying temper by wearing a gorilla mask and walking on all fours. This scene also serves to express the madness of this play: that the majority of the adults in Benjamin’s life watch on, idle, as he falls deeper and deeper into an extreme form of Christianity. He converts a disabled student, Georg (Daniel Souza ’19), and together they plot Ms. Roth’s murder, revenge for both her rejection of religion and her Jewish heritage.
It all builds to an emotional concluding scene. The adults in the cast gather to discuss Benjamin (similar to a meeting they had at the beginning of the play about his refusal to swim, now innocent by comparison) and a giant cross he has recently built. As tensions rise between Benjamin and Ms. Roth, he bellows that she touched him inappropriately. Albeit a blatant lie, the principal of the school and Ms. Roth’s fellow teacher and ex-boyfriend quickly take Benjamin’s side, the principal decreeing to fire her. It’s an easier explanation, after all, than facing their own complicity in his self-radicalization.
This is the breaking point for Ms. Roth — the only character who seems to fully understand the danger in Benjamin’s extremism — who declares that she will not leave and makes it so she physically cannot. An emotionally-ruined Roth (and brilliant Semel) takes Benjamin’s hammer and screws and begins to hammer the screws into her feet; she is the play’s true martyr. This scene is terrifying to watch, the slamming of the hammer is the only noise in the theater as we watch the only sane character in this world — the teacher we all wanted to write off as a wishy-washy liberal — sacrifice herself to a world of real zealotry. The show ends like this, a question of sorts, forcing us to evaluate the real threat of religion in a world of political correctness and arrogant people in power.