Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mary Stuart

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Or in this case, the heads. Those jealous queens, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Janet McTeer) and Elizabeth I, Queen of England (Harriet Walter) are alive and raging in the Donmar (London) Warehouse's acclaimed revival of Mary Stuart, now at the Broadhurst Theatre through Aug. 16.

In the case of Mary, of course, her head isn’t just uneasy -- it’s about to come off. Under the direction once again of Phyllida Lloyd, McTeer (right in photo) and Walter (left) re-create their roles as the treacherously competitive cousins who each sees herself as the rightful ruler of England. Peter Oswald's version of Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play may be about 16th century English royalty, but with its behind-the-scenes power plays, intrigue and betrayal, it feels perfectly contemporary.

The show is long -- three hours. While the subject is rich in history and drama, the play is quite talky as most of the story is given through exposition. For this reason, I wish I had read it first. Not because it’s hard to follow, which it isn’t, but because it’s so factually dense and there are so many good lines I wanted to savor. But the powerful performances by McTeer and Walter and the entire supposing cast make the evening as intense and theatrical as any on Broadway.

Among the other cast members are Michael Countryman as Sir Amias Paulet; Adam Greer as O'Kelly; John Benjamin Hickey as Earl of Leicester; Michael Rudko as Count Aubespine/Melvil; Robert Stanton as William Davison; Maria Tucci as Hanna Kennedy; Chandler Williams as Mortimer; Nicholas Woodeson as Lord Burleigh and Brian Murray as Earl of Shrewsbury. The company also features Jacqueline Antaramian, Tony Carlin, Monique Fowler and Guy Paul.

Schiller took some liberties with the truth that make this showdown between queens more dramatic for the theatre. The play's most exciting scene, a meeting between the two, never happened, although the real Mary believed that if she could just talk to her cousin in person she might be able to persuade Elizabeth to spare her life. She begged through intermediaries for this chance, but in reality the two never met each other.

Their meeting in the play is a brilliant sparring match, and is preceded by another theatrically thrilling scene. Mary, whom Elizabeth had kept in prison for years, seeing her as a rebel and threat to her monarchy, has been released from prison temporarily and is grateful to stand outside in the pouring rain. This rain is the best I’ve ever seen onstage. Technical director William Elliot pipes in 400 gallons of tap water purified by ultraviolet light and held in two tanks above the stage, making it truly look like a real rain shower when it comes down. It’s also a nice contrast to the starkness of Anthony Ward’s stark sets, which consist of little more than a piece or two of plain wooden furniture, backed by a black brick wall.

Ward also is responsible for the creative costuming, which has the women in period pieces and the men in contemporary suits and ties, an interesting contrast between the rulers of court and the usual rulers of the business world.

Tickets for Mary Stuart are available at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting

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