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Staging Your Family's Dark Secret "The Maria Project" turns life into art

By LONNIE FIRESTONE


From the start, Marcella Goheen knew it would be a solo performance. The Maria Project tells the story of her investigation into a murder within her own family---a journey that spanned eight years and produced 140 hours of video footage. Though colleagues suggested she create a documentary, Goheen, a self-professed "storyteller," knew the story would resonate most powerfully before a live audience.


Making its Off-Broadway debut this week at 59E59 Theaters, The Maria Project balances theatre and performance art. Goheen plays herself as well as seven other characters who help uncover the secrets of Maria, a family member whose identity is revealed in the show. She also interacts with projected photographs and videos, many of which depict the people, relatives mostly, whom Goheen sought out to learn about her past. As her characters interact with these flickering images, she builds the investigation toward an ultimate revelation of the murder. "My job every night is to discover it for the first time with the audience," she says.


Yet despite the visual flourishes, director Larry Moss was determined to make storytelling central to the show, positioning Goheen on a bare stage with a simple white canvas behind her. While a previous incarnation featured her alongside a full band, this version places greater emphasis on the creation of characters.


Goheen first learned about the murder as a young girl, but it wasn't until adulthood that she felt emotionally ready to learn more and document her findings. She began to seek out family members and interview them, not knowing if the effort would be illuminating. In the process, she discovered things she hadn't thought to look for, like the Hopi Indian ancestry that runs in her family.


Uncovering her Native American roots was particularly moving for such a narrative performer. "The storytelling and folklore---it's a very big part of the tradition," she says. "It's important to pass on what has come before you."


Still, Goheen has wrestled with exactly how much of this story to pass on. As she learned more about her family, she felt more protective of their history. That tension has informed how she shapes the material and clarified her reasons for making this piece to begin with. "The ultimate goal is to give Maria a voice because hers was silenced," she says, adding that she continues to "balance the fine line between preserving my family's dignity and making art."