Survivor as perpetrator

Gage’s new play acknowledges contradiction
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 22, 2014

 theater_stigmata_main

POWERFUL AND PRECOCIOUS Julia Reddy as
Benedetta Carlini in Carolyn Gage's Stigmata.

The Convent of the Mother of God, a 17th century religious order in Italy, seethes with seductions, power plays and manipulated “miracles.” At the center of this intrigue is Benedetta Carlini, an educated, masculine, and highly sexualized young women who escapes parental abuse, manipulates her way to a position of power in the convent, and then proceeds to abuse that power — both in order to keep it, and for her own pleasure. Her rise and fall make up the story of Stigmata, a new play by Carolyn Gage, which receives a staged reading this weekend at Mayo Street Arts.

In the first scenes of Stigmata, we see Benedetta as a sexually precocious teenager at home, directing her reluctant friends in a re-enactment of the rape of Saint Agnes, in which Benedetta plays the Saint. Her mother promptly hauls her off to the convent, where Benedetta is initially rejected on basis of her class, but is accepted after faking her first miracle. Later, Benedetta has a relationship with the Abbess close enough to arouse suspicion. Once the Abbess dies, Benedetta manages to succeed her, but goes on to institute the same instruments of patriarchal and religious repression — whippings, hair shirts, punishments of silence — at which women like herself have long chafed. Stigmata forces us to ask, as Gage writes in the introduction to her script, whether Benedetta is “perpetrating fraud or creatively manipulating the system to retain her authenticity?”

Gage was first drawn to Carlini’s story some time ago, reading Stanford historian Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, a scholarly account of the woman’s trial, based on Inquisition records. Years later, having lived and worked in many communities of women, Gage was struck by the social phenomenon she came to know as “horizontal hostility,” or community members fighting amongst themselves. “It’s easier for women to attack other women about issues that are not the source of our oppression,” argues Gage, “than it is to identify and attack the institutions that are the real problem.” Gage came to see the world described in Brown’s book as “a crucible for horizontal hostility,” and the woman at the center of the story as “larger-than-life in so many ways — a dramatist’s dream!”

This complex character of Benedetta will be played, in this weekend’s staged reading, by Julia Reddy, a sensitive and powerful actress who has previously acted in Acorn Productions’ Cymbeline and Mad Horse’s The Play About the Baby. The cast of 13, working under the direction of Stephanie Ross, also features Beth Chasse, Amanda Painter, Beth Somerville, and Megan Tripaldi, and Saturday night’s performance will be followed by a talk-back (led by myself).

The cultural significance of the era of Stigmata, Gage explains, is one of a “late-stage cultural recovery” of lesbian culture: “Cultures recover from traumatic silence and secrecy in stages that are similar to those experienced by individual survivors.” The earliest stages of recovery, in this formulation, find the victim casting off the stereotypes imposed upon them by the dominant culture, and instead taking up new, positive ones. By the later stages, however, the victim demonstrates “the ability to tolerate contradiction, to hold simultaneously in consciousness two conflicting ideas,” and can acknowledge conditions or personas with more moral ambiguity.

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