Monday, April 20, 2009

History as theater as history... (Theater - Mary Stuart)

Broadway is sporting a new production of Mary Stuart. It's a new version of Shiller's classic play by Peter Oswald directed by Phyllida Lloyd and imported from London's Donmar Warehouse. I'm always glad when Broadway takes on a good play with a good team, it's too bad this production ends up being such a mixed bag. On the good side, the new version of the text is full-blooded, contemporary and accessible and except for what it takes on thematically (see below) does not draw much attention to itself. The two lead actresses are a dynamic pair, Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer are available to their circumstances, think on their feet, know how to use language but don't kid themselves that the play ends with the words they say. They both give effective and alive performances. Janet McTeer is particularly able to bring her character both a sense of grandeur and of the colloquial. I enjoyed Brian Murray a lot too, he plays the Earl of Shrewsbury with an obsequious, self-effacing exterior but a solid core, and he never pushes for effect. John Benjamin Hickey has his moments as well, but wears his English accent awkwardly and it seems to keep him from ever fully relishing the duplicitous realities of the Earl of Leicester's character. In fact, I found this production burdened often by theatrical cliche and generality, it felt very much like an opera production - long on general concept and short on human detail - and I would lay the responsibility for that at the doorstep of director Phillida Lloyd. The text and production saw much contemporary relevance in this famous story of Queen Elizabeth I of England and her insecure sense of her hold on the throne due to her rivalrous cousin Mary Stuart who is a Catholic and who flees Scotland after a coup there. She is imprisoned by Elizabeth and thus becomes a figure around which the papists and others who wished to depose Elizabeth rally. Lloyd and Oswald's Mary Stuart clearly references our own recent history and America and Britain's choice to always value security over displomacy or mercy. It is no accident, I think, that the actor Nicholas Woodeson playing Lord Burleigh, who engineers Queen Elizabeth's insecurity and strongly favors the beheading of Mary Stuart, looks so much like Dick Cheney. The production does not strain hard at all for this parallel and I found it resonant without being heavy-handed. Beyond this bold stroke of concept, I found the production lacking in subtlety of human interaction between the characters and their circumstances. It is unfortunate, for instance, that the long scene that opens the play featuring the usually able Maria Tucci as Mary Stuart's nurse and Michael Countryman as her jailer, is such a welter of stage cliches. This is one of the many details that makes this play feel like an opera. It's an "oh, you know" performance. Oh, you know, she's the old nurse. You know what old nurses are like. Just waggle your voice and your chin and look generally addled know, old... and you'll be fine. If the director tried for anything more than that I would be shocked, given how good a caliber of actor she has. Hanna as played by Tucci feels like the mezzo nurse in a tired opera production, everyone always ignores those poor mezzos and focuses on the star Soprano - say Emelia to Desdemona in Otello or Alisa to Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. It would be nice if someone told the actors in the opening scene that they didn't have to scream the lines of the play to be heard. If they would just focus on doing something real - listening to each other, really folding that damn blanket, we might be drawn in. Now everyone coughs and rustles their programs and suffers through the exposition until the star enters. We perk up when Janet McTeer enters not merely because she played Nora so well on Broadway a few years ago, but because she speaks in what sounds like a normal voice and actually inhabits the details of her circumstances. The same problem existed in the performance of Chandler Williams as Mortimer, such a flurry of classical theater convention swirls around his generalities of young rashness - the way he throws his body about - I really don't know what he is doing or saying. But I in no way think or feel that this man is moved to eventual suicide by his new found religion or the imprisoned queen who embodies his faith. Although there are many moments to enjoy in this production, I thought that, with the exceptions already mentioned, this was lazy work, not on the part of the actors, if anything many of them work too hard, but on the part of the director. It seemed content to simply rely on its stars and its strong concept and cartoon-in the rest. I expected better.

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