By Bridgette M. Redman

Mariology is the theological study of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

Unless you are Nancy Keystone of the Critical Mass Performance Group, then it is much more than just a theological study.

At 7 p.m. Sunday, March 28, Keystone will direct the next workshop performance of “Mariology” at Boston Court in Pasadena.

The free workshop will be shared with a virtual audience as part of an ongoing process to create the dynamic performance spectacle that, according to Boston Court, is “exploring the Virgin Mary as a beacon of faith, source of comfort and a weapon of colonization.”

Keystone has been working on this iteration of “Mariology” for nearly four years, but her fascination with the well-known mother goes back to her childhood. Despite being Jewish, she attended a progressive Catholic school for fifth and sixth grades. She said she found the “rebel nuns” from the Immaculate Heart Community very inspiring.

When it came time for religion class, she was supposed to leave and attend Hebrew school. Instead, she stayed to learn about Catholicism. She was fascinated by what the religion teacher had to say.

“I became very interested in Mary,” Keystone said. “At that point, she was this obedient, pretty meek figure and very mysterious to me.”

Then she left and Mary dropped off her radar until she was in college and studying art history and women’s studies. She again became fascinated by Mary’s presence in religious art, especially pictures of the Annunciation, where Christians believe the Archangel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus.

“At a certain point, I started to wonder, what if Mary had said no? What would have happened?” Keystone said. “That was wound up with a lot of other ideas of being a woman and the woman’s place in the world.”

Decades passed with those thoughts still incubating.

In late 2018, she brought the ideas to her theater company. She wanted to explore the way Mary is represented and the way women are expected to behave.

“I’m not someone who believes in Mary in terms of my faith,” Keystone said. “But I believe my life as a woman is intensely impacted by the meanings ascribed to her. I was interested in looking into that. I brought it to the company, and people were interested, so that’s been our exploration.”

Exploring gender and gender roles

In the first workshop, Keystone thought the piece should have all women or female-identifying actors, but as the piece grew, she moved away from that.

They began exploring with six actors and a musician. Each of the six actors — male, female and nonbinary actors — were clad in sky blue dresses that evoke Catholic school girl uniforms. They sat in two rows of three to start and took on the roles of 10- to 11-year-old children.

“We don’t have a story or text yet,” Keystone said. “We start from nothing. Whatever we showed at a workshop is just experiment and exploration. There is no script, and no one has a part yet. We’re exploring what the possibilities are for the piece.”

In the early 2020 workshop, they were focused on the indoctrination of a classroom and taking a critical view of how women and girls are socialized and controlled by religion and society.

Catholics who saw it told Keystone they felt their lives flashing before their eyes and the workshops provoked a lot of discussion.

Necessity becomes mother of new formats

They finished that workshop performance in February 2020, right before the pandemic. At the time, they planned on doing a summer workshop, but that too was canceled. They continued putting things off hoping that they would soon be back in person.

“I wasn’t ready to figure out how to do it online,” Keystone said. “I was still naively hoping we would be through the pandemic a little more quickly.”

By fall, she was ready to start figuring out how to further explore it online. Keystone worried that Zoom was not the right world for them because their work is very movement and ensemble oriented with a lot of choreography.

They have been experimenting with different ideas for spectacle, trying them out in a sketch form. They’ve tried making little dolls, creating sketches and forming models for their ideas.

“The piece is intended to have quite a bit of spectacle in it and be transformative in that aspect,” Keystone said. She began working on characters. She said they don’t often work individually, and this has opened new ideas for them. 

Pandemic influences direction of spectacle

This new workshop has started with a different lens than the first one.

“It is more about how people need Mary and how they lean on her,” Keystone said. “We’ve been in a time of distress and trauma and it is very clear people are searching for something to hold on to that gives them faith and hope and Mary is definitely one of those things.”

They are exploring her as a figure that appeals to people on multiple levels—as a mother, as someone who experiences deep loss and grief, as a chosen person, as someone considered extremely holy and as a model of womanhood.

“People who are deeply faithful look to her for guidance of who to be,” Keystone said. “Especially women, but men look to her for guidance on how to treat women or approach women.”

She said they’re hoping to learn about design, spectacle and how individual actors might become more like characters. The presentation won’t be a traditional show, she warns, but almost a lecture demonstration where she will talk first and then present the show and tell of sketches and models.

“We’ll show some sequences we’ve mixed, some monologues,” Keystone said. “We’re working on a couple songs which we’re trying to figure out how to do digitally.”

Boston Court has been a supportive partner in the development of the piece and Keystone said they’re helping walk them through the technology and provide audience outreach.

Keystone hopes that because the idea of Mary is so vast and intersectional, it will open up interesting conversations with the community not just about religion and faith, but about race, colonization, women and women’s place and role in society.

“There are a lot of things to explore,” Keystone said. “They will not all be in our little workshop, but those are the tentacles that are reaching out. We hope that audiences will be inspired to think about Mary in ways they haven’t before.”


“Mariology: A Workshop Presentation”

7 p.m. Sunday, March 28

Virtual performance

Tickets are free, but registration is required

bostoncourtpasadena.org