Tuesday, July 21, 2009

NYC: Mary Stuart

Most of the hype surrounding the Broadway revival of Schiller's Mary Stuart has centered on the TONY nominated performances of two actresses. I agree that this production delivers two unforgettable performances, but only one of which was nominated for a TONY: Harriet Walter's Queen Elizabeth, the second being John Benjamin Hickey's Earl of Leicester. The majority of the publicity for this show has centered on Janet McTeer's performance as Mary Stuart, which I found simply too dramatic to be believable. Ms. McTeer's performance gives everything away leaving nothing to the imagination. Her voice is laden with emotion and her speech is calculatedly breathless. Every choice seems like an actor's choice rather than an impulse from the character and the protagonist, therefore, defies empathy from the audience. In this interpretation, Mary Stuart is a free-spirited, ill-suited woman given the title of queen who would rather run free and splash in puddles as opposed to lead a nation. Some of this is implied in the script; however, what lacks is the perception of Mary Stuart as a leader, as a queen, as someone who a nation can entrust with their faith. Ms. McTeer delivers a staggeringly emotional performance; however, I desire a little more calculation and a little less opera in my matriarchal despot.

Thus, Harriet Walter's Queen Elizabeth provides the perfect antagonist to McTeer's Mary Stuart. Whereas McTeer is over-the-top and melodramatic, Ms. Walter's performance is a perfectly calculated presentation of a Queen whose motivations are obfuscated with treachery and conviction. This is not to say that Ms. Walters delivers an emotionally stilted performance; however, she only allows her emotions to escape when the circumstances have stacked against her. And this slip of emotion against her regal facade of comportment delivers a far more empathy-inducing reaction than the give-all tactics of the title character. Ms. Walters perfectly depicts the dichotomous frustration of being a despot: having ultimate power and being forced to live with the consequences which may affect a nation. Ms. Walter does an exceptional job of conveying her inner-conflict without releasing her outer shell. In any other TONY year, I guarantee she would have received her due laurels.

The other actor who most impressed me in this production was John Benjamin Hickey as the Earl of Leicester. While many of the supporting cast delivered fine performances, Mr. Hickey's surpassed all the others. His was the only performance to transcend the debilitating directorial interpretation of costuming the men in contemporary suits. Whereas this device became a hindrance with all the other characters, in Mr. Hickey's command, his costume was superfluous. He deftly portrayed the suitor, cunning traitor, and empathetic citizen fluidly and with abandon. His performance has been sadly underrated under the glare of the star actresses attention.

The show also carries a weighty directorial interpretation that is unique for a Broadway historical drama. Usually, one expects classic plays on Broadway to be presented with stunning costumes, sets, and spectacle. The only scenery for this production was a sparse brick wall painted black and lined with a 1970s-style wooden bench. The costumes for the men were contemporary black suits with more traditional garb for the women characters. My colleague suggested that this choice was to emphasize the difference in gender roles; however, I wonder if this was chosen to contemporize the themes of the play such as religion versus politics, public will versus private gain, and power versus manipulation. The sparse design was punctuated with superb lighting that almost played a supporting role in the cast. Designed by Hugh Vanstone, the use of light and shadow, illumination of isolated objects, and footlights that cast magnanimous shadows on the back wall provided a commentary on the text that could be a full semester's study in the ability of light to interpret a play. As for the rest of the director's choices, I found myself wondering why more often than understanding or being emotionally affected by the aesthetic. I am the biggest fan of American Repertory Theatre who has established itself as the home of crazy directorial interpretation in the U.S. (clearly, Europe has the trademark on the funky mise en scene). However, I felt jipped by this production's concept in that I was not able to focus my full attention on the quality acting or delivery of story in a play that is rife with storytelling. Had this been Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar, I would have said, "Interpret away..." But given the historicism of thie piece, I wanted the production to raise questions about the characters' motivations and interactions that influenced history rather than the director and designers' interpretations to influence the audiences' aesthetic experience.

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