Mary’s Wonderous Body at the Elision Playhouse

Isabella Dunsieth Photo by Seth Campbell

Mary’s Wondrous Body is billed as a dark comedy, the plot description reads like a comedy, it is not a comedy. I hate to disagree with the creators, there are definitely humorous moments and the situation devoid of the graphic details we are given certainly would support such an idea, but a comedy? No. So don’t book this for a laugh, you will better appreciate it’s intent if you go in knowing what to expect. What you get is a so bizarre it must be true type historical oddity told by an amazing cast. It’s dark, it’s difficult, there is some humor, but it’s intent is to shine a light on stories of the womb. Through this strange moment from the past, we are led to reflect on where we are in the world today in terms of reproductive rights. The more you understand about these dark ages of medicine as covered in this production, the more your reflect on the events of the last couple of years and you get a sense that the sun may be setting on the age of enlightenment, such as it is.

Written, produced and directed by Madeline Wall the production tells the story performance and song of Mary Toft who in 1726 after suffering a miscarriage stumped the the medical world by pretending to give birth to rabbits, or pieces of them at any rate. It was thought by some in the medical profession that it was the result of maternal impression which was the belief that the mother’s imagination could have a direct influence on how a baby formed in the womb. Yep, as I write, I hear how it sounds like a comedy. Mary’s mother-in-law Ann is the midwife and after the miscarriage she her daughter Mags, a neighbor who is in labor, and Mary all conspire to try and get some money from the nearby surgeon with the faked rabbit births. This is born not out of greed but a desire to eat and stay alive. Being in a family with the local midwife and living in a time before contraceptive products, much of these women’s lives revolve around having and raising children. And so we hear of miscarriages and infant deaths but they discuss these things matter of factly as women who deal with these things daily would. I repeat this is not a comedy. Wall’s script wisely doesn’t shy away from the graphic and earthy nature of their discussions. It is through these realities that the power of the play resides. In 1726, life was hard, particularly if you are a woman. Olive is faced with the fact that if her labor is quick and the baby is born that day that tomorrow she will need to be out working the fields. Mary and her family and friend actually think stuffing parts of dead rabbits inside of her in hopes of earning money from gullible physicians is a hardship worth going through with, because life is that hard in 1726. Dark comedy indeed.

Two performers don’t have very large parts, one is Nick Miller who has a couple of short scenes but is mostly there for musical accompaniment. The other is Caleb Wagner who plays Mary’s husband and has more scenes but isn’t given much to do. This is really the story of Mary, Ann, Mags and Olive and the show belongs to the actors playing those roles. All four are incredible, their voices in song power the way in which they move through the performance with commitment and purpose. Isabella Dunsieth is Mary who does the performance acrobatics of playing in character and then seamlessly coming in and out of something like a stand up comedy act, where she addresses the audience while holding a microphone. It’s a great technique to add a relatability to the performance and also to give us some much needed momentary distance from the hardness of the past. Sarah Broude is Ann, she plays her with a hardness that feels appropriate for the times, when being hard is how you kept yourself and your loved ones alive. Emily Rosenberg is Mags, they play the most sympathetic of the women, perhaps she is softer because she is younger. Rosenberg has been on my one to watch for awhile now and once again they reminded me why, towards the end of the show they have a moment of song that was beyond anything I’d seen or known they were capable of before. Laila Sahir plays Olive the neighbor who gets a brilliant little scene towards the end when she is faced with a little bit of survivors guilt when Mary returns from London and they have to address the rabbit in the room, that Olives child has lived whereas Mary’s died. Sahir plays that moment beautifully, for the first part of the scene her back was to me, when she turned around the power in the moment came flooding in with one look into her eyes.

In almost every respect this is an accomplished production, the cast is perfect and the script and musical moments are are powerful and beautiful. There are a couple of things that worked while also sort of not working. The space, when one performer was singing the acoustics were phenomenal, it was like hearing them all singing in the shower. But, when they were speaking and not facing towards you, a lot of the dialogue was lost, even more so when they were speaking over each other as they do at several points. The message and themes of the work are powerful, important, and relevant, but why on earth are you producing this at the holidays? This is a February show if ever I saw one. When I’m asked to recommend one show to someone this holiday season, as top notch as this production is, it isn’t going to be Mary’s Wondrous Body. This is the kind of show people should see, these are stories that need to be shared because they get us thinking about our world and what is happening around us. But it’s the time of year people want to see Christmas at the Local or one of the Christmas’s at Pemberley plays. I think the show will suffer unfairly from being released now, and maybe by hammering home the fact that it is not a comedy, I’ve contributed to that. But, I also want those who do attend to know what they are getting so they are in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. You should also be aware that the language is quite strong, it’s not an issue for most of us in this day and age but there are several uses of the “C” word for example, I think it’s effectively used, but for some that is one of the more offensive words in the english language and so better to know going in.

Mary’s Wonderous Body runs through December 18th at the Elision Playhouse for more information and to purchase tickets go to

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