Monday, April 20, 2009

Mary Stuart


By Freidrich Schiller, Directed by Phyllida Lloyd; At the Broadhurst Theater. (CLOSED)

For Mary Stuart, the majority of critical responses are out-and-out raves, with AMNY's Matt Windman being the closest thing to a dissenting voice. Some reviewers feel the play is a little slow to get going at the top, but all praise the performances and Phyllida Lloyd's aggressive, highly theatrical staging. The biggest source of critical debate are the design choices from the stark, minimalist set to the anachronistic costumes. Frank Scheck sums it up by calling it "the prestige hit of the spring season". Marketed largely as a vehicle for Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter's triumphant return to Broadway, to the critics Mary Stuart seems to have gone beyond justifying its existence to become a timely, beautiful thriller. Lone dissenter Talk Entertainment dislikes both the play and the production but highly praises the acting.

The Hollywood Reporter A+
(Frank Scheck) The prestige hit of the spring season...Walter and McTeer deliver superbly riveting performances. The former is all tight control, gradually peeling away Elizabeth's formidable reserve to display the deep anguish caused by her immense responsibilities, and the latter provides an emotive, vigorous turn that emphasizes Mary's passion, both physical and emotional.

American Theater Web A
(Andy Propst) Phyllida Lloyd's riveting staging of Schiller's Mary Stuart, which opened on Broadway last night, proves that a 200-year old play about events from the mid-sixteenth century can be a timely piece of political theater. At the same time, this drama about the conflict between Queen Elizabeth I (Harriet Walker) and Mary, Queen of Scots (Janet McTeer) allows two powerhouse actresses to deliver intense and captivating layered portrayals of two exceptional women.

NYTimes A
(Ben Brantley) Terrifically exciting...they embody what may be the most storied rivalry in English history with a transfixing willfulness and devious artistry that could easily make the susceptible lose their heads. This being the year of our Lord 2009, no such sacrifices will be demanded literally. But it’s hard not to be at least a little in love with — and more than a little in awe of — the very leading ladies in Phyllida Lloyd’s crackling revival.

TalkinBroadway A
(Matthew Murray) Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, who respectively play Mary and Elizabeth, are the fiery centerpieces of this searing production, which uses Peter Oswald's new version of Friedrich Schiller's go-for-broke 1800 script and has been directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Their performances, which they originated at London's Donmar Warehouse in 2005, rank among the most vivid seen on Broadway this season. Displaying fire-marshal-frightening pyrotechnics but scant traces of actory excess, McTeer and Walter carve grandly golden portrayals of two women struggling against the stereotypes and expectations foisted on them by the men who insist they have their queens' best interests at heart.

Variety A
(David Rooney) The spin, chicanery and ruthless self-preservation of a government that both abides by and manipulates public perception are timeless. Phyllida Lloyd's steely revival of the Friedrich Schiller play simmers and scalds as it should, but it's the deft balance of the parallel tragedies of two imprisoned queens that makes the production so enthralling. A
(Robert Feldberg) Vibrant, audacious and, as the plots are hatched that will send Mary to the gallows, improbably funny.

CurtainUp A
(Elyse Sommer) Naturally, it's the chance to see these two British stage divas in one of history's most famous high stakes family feuds that is the ticket buying draw. However, while Mary Stuart is, above all, an extraordinary showcase for the two leading ladies, there are also ample bravura acting opportunities for the supporting players. Under Phyllida Lloyd's firm direction the fact that McTeer's Mary and Walters' Elizabeth are now surrounded by an American cast of advisers, supporters and double dealers has not diminished the overall strength of her innovatively staged new version of Friedrich Schiller's 1800 history-based, if not entirely historically accurate, tragedy. There's strength and cohesiveness in the entire company, and without any of the awkward straining for authentic accents that often weakens transfers of British plays without their complete original casts.

Associated Press A
Mary Stuart superbly explores the link between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, royal relatives locked in a grim battle that only one can win. But what elevates this adaptation of Friedrich Schiller's venerable play to even greater heights are the thrilling performances of the actresses who portray these formidable ladies: Janet McTeer as Mary and Harriet Walter as Elizabeth. The suspense is palpable despite the fact we know how the play will end. Credit director Phyllida Lloyd and adapter Peter Oswald, who have created a taut tale of political intrigue, a bruising contest in which the prize is England itself.

Time Out NY A
(David Cote) Lloyd and her sublime leading ladies ensure that our sympathies keep ping-ponging until the very end. When I caught the original, more intimate staging at London's Donmar Warehouse in 2005, the action felt weighted toward beleaguered, pious Mary and against the coolly manipulative Elizabeth. Here, however, there's no imbalance. In one scene our hearts break for the magnificently hot-blooded McTeer; in the next Walter shows us how she too is just as trapped and desperate. Neither woman is purely a victim, but neither are they political free agents. The look of barely contained desolation on Walter's face in the final moments of the play—as Elizabeth emerges the winner—is chilling beyond words.

Newsday A
(Linda Winer) This is more than just a star vehicle about the deadly collision of the Protestant Elizabeth I and Mary, the Catholic Queen of Scotland. Phyllida Lloyd, the director known here only for "Mamma, Mia!," has staged Peter Oswald's taut three-hour compression of Friedrich Schiller's massive 1800 drama with all the visceral, unpredictable psychology of a popular page-turner.

USA Today A-
(Elyse Gardner) McTeer brings robust sensuality and ferocious intelligence to the earthy but pious Mary, who has been imprisoned by Elizabeth on trumped-up charges. Though her anguish is palpable, McTeer ensures she isn't a victim, but a formidable sparring partner to Harriet Walter's icy, shrewish Virgin Queen.

NYPost A-
(Elizabeth Vincentelli) Spring has brought plenty of hyped shows and stars to Broadway. But don't let those high- wattage marquees blind you to this sleeper, which delivers plenty more thrills than most of its neighbors. A London import as gripping as it is elegant, Mary Stuart is packed with political machinations, mind games and rhetorical bouts about justice and power.

Lighting And Sound America A-
(David Barbour) Phyllida Lloyd's staging provides one coup de theater after another -- when a rainstorm comes to a sudden stop as Mary and Elizabeth come face to face; when Mary leads a line of courtiers to her own execution; and when Elizabeth stands alone in the dark, her face a mask of confusion as she wonders if she hasn't woven her web of intrigue too tightly. Lloyd has also obtained a pair of monumental performances from her leading ladies. As Mary, Janet McTeer is steely in adversity ("I will not resort to assassination; it is beneath me") and, when she finally comes face to face with her captor, a towering figure of rage ("The throne of England is desecrated by a bastard!"). She attains a luminous poise in the face of death; her final confession scene is underplayed to overpowering effect. Underneath her brilliantly witty surface, Harriet Walters' Elizabeth is a deeply frightened woman -- disowned by her father, insecure in her grip on power, and jealous of Mary's physical beauty. To survive, she has become a master of the power game, disguising her intentions from even her closest advisors. ("Nothing is safe, except in obscurity," she muses.) She even makes sport of her own wiles. "Wring what you can from these confessions," she tells a courtier, admitting nothing.

TheaterMania A-
(David Finkle) Those who saw the show's London Donmar Warehouse production in its original thrust-stage venue (also with McTeer and Walter) may have to deal with an adjustment seeing it on a proscenium stage. Some depth has been lost, a development further exaggerated by Ward moving forward his false and painted-black back wall. The change has flattened the play in more ways than one, too often giving it the diminishing look of an historical tableau. Luckily, though, there's no flattening the brilliance of Walter and McTeer.

Backstage A-
(David Sheward) The first act is difficult to get through, with tons of exposition and Anthony Ward's black-and-gray sets and costumes providing little visual distraction. But the second act opens with a storm -- literally. The highly anticipated meeting between the imprisoned but defiant Mary and the triumphant yet insecure Elizabeth begins in an onstage downpour. It's a stunning stage effect and sets up the central conflict brilliantly: Mary sensuously rejoices in the rain, running freely with arms outstretched, while Elizabeth cowers under an umbrella, surrounded by her courtiers. From there, Mary Stuart delivers several dramatic roundhouses and scores a knockout.

The New Yorker A-
(John Lahr) Mary Stuart is an exercise in eloquence and intrigue. McTeer and Walter are British actors of exemplary intelligence and sinew. They are alert and articulate; they parse every nuance of every word. The political pragmatism may be predictable, but the theatrical pyrotechnics with which it’s displayed are exceptional.

JustShowsToGoYou B+
(Patrick Lee) Peter Oswald’s adaptation of Shiller’s semi-fictionalized history play concerning Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots is snappy and sharp, as is this thoroughly engrossing production (imported from Donmar Warehouse) in which the two rival Queens wear period dress while the men of the court are costumed in modern suits.

Entertainment Weekly B+
(Aubry D'Arminio) This isn't a shocking or bold play. It's more like a three-hour catfight, nicely played by two superb actresses with a fine supporting cast.

NY Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Director Phyllida Lloyd is known for the fluffy megahit Mamma Mia! but she guides this meaty drama with skill. I especially liked her use of lighting (by Hugh Vanstone) and sound (Paul Arditti) to punctuate scenes, with one exception — the blackout at the moment of Mary's (offstage) execution, as if the play's over. It makes the last scene with Elizabeth awkward. It's no way to treat a lady — especially a queen.

Wall St. Journal B
(Terry Teachout) A prosy Mary Stuart would seem to be a contradiction in terms, but Ms. McTeer, Ms. Walter and their supporting cast speak their unresonant lines as though Shakespeare himself had penned them, and the collective effect of their virtuoso performances goes a very long way toward ennobling Mr. Oswald's plain-Jane script. Phyllida Lloyd's production, which is played on an almost-bare stage, is too conceptual for my taste -- the women are dressed in period costumes, the men in bureaucratic business suits -- but it works. Don't expect to be moved by this dry-eyed "Mary Stuart," though: It's all about the acting. I was enthralled, but I didn't feel a thing.

(Stephanie Zacharek) Walter’s Elizabeth is plenty regal, but she’s a cartoon, mannered and imperious, demanding our respect instead of earning it. McTeer’s Mary is lustier and more vital, which at least gives Mary Stuart flashes of life, but not enough. This is a classy enterprise, dressed in the right clothes, working the gray matter—so rigorously that you could almost miss that it’s dead from the neck down

Bloomberg B
(John Simon) In German, this is a grand, classical play, depending more on poetic recitation than on stage action. Phyllida Lloyd, the director, has deconcertized it, inserting a fair number of tussles and wallows, allowing both queens some demeanor and vocalizing more appropriate to Holy Rollers or fans of “American Idol.” Sometimes this relieves, sometimes it clashes....The acting, however, is properly timeless. McTeer is a thoroughly believable Mary: handsome, beautifully spoken, and almost acrobatically agile. Walter’s Elizabeth shuttles provocatively between starchiness and giddiness, grandeur and ultimate forlornness.

NYTheatre B-
(Loren Noveck) The play is a nearly three-hour-long series of rhetorical strategizing and eloquent speechifying—and remarkably engaging despite that, largely due to wonderful performances (the headliners, Harriet Walter as Elizabeth and Janet McTeer as Mary, are predictably spectacular, but the rest of the ensemble, under Phyllida Lloyd's precise direction, more than holds their own with in some ways more challenging roles), as well as a surprisingly intimate staging (the stark scenic design only uses a shallow strip of the depth of the stage, forcing all of the action right up against the audience). I'm not at all sure I actually liked the play—or more specifically, the adaptation (more on that later)—but watching it twist and turn its way through intrigue, double- and triple-agent maneuvering, master manipulation, and calculated oratory has many pleasures.

(Matt Windman) Occasionally stirring...This production was obviously shipped to New York following its London premiere to showcase the subtle, layered performances of its leading actresses. But whether audiences will also appreciate the rest of the play is questionable.

Talk Entertainment C-
(Oscar E. Moore) The style of the play, as directed by Phyllida Lloyd is an odd mixture of Greek tragedy, Shakespearean soliloquies, some nifty dialogue, naturalistic and climbing the walls school of acting and some brilliance – mostly emanating from Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter. But Ms. Lloyd makes some rather strange directorial decisions. Why have Elizabeth with her back to the audience in an all important “advisor” scene? Why the period vs. modern costumes? (more economical than inspired). In an all important scene where Mary receives communion from her house steward (Robert Stanton) who carries an instant communion kit in his ultra light suitcase – chalice with wine at the ready (how the wine hasn’t spilled from the chalice in the suitcase is more of a mystery than will Elizabeth kill Mary or won’t she) took me straight out of the moment. The lighting by Hugh Vanstone is extraordinary. But it’s not nearly enough to light up this production. The fault lies not with the acting but with the direction and adaptation. I’d gladly trade off two Queens to revisit Geoffrey Rush in Exit the King.

THR A+ 14; NYT A 13; ND A 13; ATW A 13; CU A 13; TONY A 13; TB A 13; AP A 13; NJC A 13; V A 13; USA A- 12; TM A- 12; LSA A- 12; BS A- 12; NYP A- 12; TNY A- 12; NDN B+ 11; JS2 B+ 11; EW B+ 11; WSJ B 10; NYM B 10; BB B 10; NYTR B- 9; AMNY B- 9; TE C- 6; TOTAL = 278/24= 11.58 (A-)


Anonymous said...

Re: "When even John Simon praises a piece, you can be pretty sure the critics liked it." Did you read the reviews HAPPINESS, a show Simon adored, received?

isaac butler said...

ha! good point.