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Down To earth 

What's a Messiah's widow to do?

When Stan Peal's Goddess and the Magdalene premieres this week, don't expect to see the Myers Park, Carmel Road, or Heritage USA version of Mary M -- or a conventional take on Jesus' teachings. Peal's apocryphal gospel adopts the idea that Magdalene was the Son of God's wife. We don't see her until after that series of unfortunate events at Golgotha. All the better for the widow to emerge from the Messiah's shadow.

Goddess boasts the biggest production budget in the brief history of Epic Arts Repertory Theatre. It also reunites the artistic team behind EARTh's 2003 premiere of Peal's The Friar & the Nurse, the company's most highly acclaimed effort. Peal's own missus, Laura Depta, will portray Mary. Lon Bumgarner, who directed the couple in the Romeo and Juliet side story (as founder of Charlotte Shakespeare, he had special credentials), has helped Peal to streamline his story.

Depta, Epic Arts' artistic director, hasn't had a role this juicy since she swashbuckled the lead in Cyrano de Bergerac. The heroic gender-bending is subtler this time around. Deprived of her great teacher and stripped of her identity in the wake of the crucifixion, Mary has the spirit to quest for her own.

"You so rarely see the hero's journey where the hero is a woman," Depta points out. "She meets these three goddesses, a maiden from the east, Hilda the Valkyrie huntress, and Gaia the earth magic woman. And together they go on a quest to reclaim the Garden of Eden."

Heresy piled upon heresy! But sensationalism isn't the point. Nor is nakedness the reason for the Eden quest.

"This is not some kind of subversive attempt here," Depta insists. "The play is intended to be an exploration of religion and spirituality. We're not trying to get in anybody's face. We're just putting out ideas, trying to affect people and bring people an artistic perspective. And let us not forget, entertain people."

Depta is aware, however, of the difference between Charlotte and Minneapolis, where Peal's first version premiered as Gospel of the Messiah Widow in 2001. Reaction to the piece in that previous incarnation, although varied, was never heated up in the northland. Could it be different here?

"There are people who are very, very threatened by anything that says that their religion isn't the right one," Depta observes, "and I don't know what to do about those people. Those people are beyond my understanding. That kind of arrogance to think that you're right and everybody else is wrong. That's really hard for me to fathom."

Joining Depta in the quest for the Garden of Eden are Marilyn Carter as Gaia, Annette Saunders as Hilda the Valkyrie, and Carrie Anne Hunt as Kwan-Yin. Other notables in the cast -- at Actor's Theatre through July 28 -- include Lou Dalessandro, Joanna Gerdy, Glenn Hutchinson, Tom Ollis, Mark Sutton and Barbi Van Schaick. Peal has taken on directing chores for this project.

Burnout after the first barrage of Epic Arts productions was why Peal and Depta shut operations down after Scratchy Scratcherton's Revenge in 2004. When the couple came back to EARTh last fall with Peal's The Expanding Sky, they had a firmer grip on finances and the mad, mad energy they had previously devoted to their company. Both Peal and Depta have worked for other companies in recent years, holding down day jobs and moonlighting with such elites as Actor's Theatre and Children's Theatre.

Epic Arts has exported two of Peal's plays to New York. Depta and Peal have noted that regional theater is struggling across the country and believe that their brand of smart, colorful, thought-provoking spectacles is the answer to the incursions of film, TV and Wii. After seeing Charlotte Rep flame out and witnessing Stage Next's pre-launch abort, Peal and Depta plan to build toward a respectably paid, fully professional company in small steps.

"Time will tell," Depta says. "The situation in Charlotte right now is very discouraging. I met with [Stage Next's] Steve Beaucham a few times, and I'm very discouraged that he tried so hard for so long and had such little results. On the other side, I meet people -- our donors and our supporters -- who are so hungry for good theater and will seek it out, and go and find it. I don't know that there are thousands and thousands of people like that, but it's inspiring when I talk to them. Because they really want it to be!"

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