Monday, April 22, 2013

'The Testament of Mary': Fiona Shaw Solos In A Lacerating Version of "The Greatest Story Ever Told"

Fiona Shaw in 'The Testament of Mary'

It’s getting so that if you are on time to the theater, you are actually late.

If, for instance, you have tickets for the hit musical Once, you need to arrive a good half hour before curtain time in order to enjoy the exuberant live pre-show performance of Irish music, along with the opportunity to buy expensive drinks at the on-stage bar. 

Productions of other musicals (Fela! comes to mind) and even non-musicals (Brief Encounter) have offered live music as the audience settled in, and it’s hard to find even a straight play—especially a period revival—that doesn’t set the mood through the use of recordings from the era (Golden Boy, Happy Birthday).  Even the Pearl Theatre Company’s lighter-than-air production of This Side of Neverland, a pair of one-acts by J. M. Barrie, entertains us with an on-stage pianist playing turn-of-the-20th-century tunes. 

So, what’s a director to do to grab the audience’s attention without resorting to the ubiquitous pre-show musical performance?

Deborah Warner, director of The Testament of Mary—the stimulating, if overly stimulated new play at the Walter Kerr Theatre—gives the pre-show a new twist, what you might call the pre-show art exhibit.  

While waiting for the play to begin, audience members are invited to come onto the stage to walk around and view the pre-show set, designed by Tom Pye in the manner of an exhibition of Dada art.  The set is, indeed, a sight to behold, rife with symbolism and found objects, only some of which remain onstage as the play begins, to be used as props during the 90-minute rigorous workout of a performance by Fiona Shaw as the Virgin Mary.

Ms. Shaw, the gifted Irish actress best known to many Americans for her recurring role as Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter film series, was last seen on Broadway a decade ago in a modern-dress version of Medea (another visceral performance directed by Ms. Warner).  Here she portrays an angry, depressed, and frustrated Mary, whose own version of the events surrounding her son’s last days has been ignored and distorted beyond redemption, save for the 90 minutes in which she is allotted to give testament. 

In case you are thinking of attending the play, I’ll not reveal any more about the pre-show exhibition, save to say that it is quite an eyeful and is sure to hold your attention.  As for the pieces of it that serve as props during the play, they must be made of strong materials, indeed, to be able to withstand Ms. Shaw’s physical workout of a performance.

The Testament Of Mary was written by Colm Toibin, both  as this play and as a novella. In it, Mary has been badgered to support the version of Jesus’s story that suits the hierarchy of the Church—and she wants no part of it.  As far as she is concerned, her son’s life was usurped by the band of hangers-on who followed him everywhere and turned him, essentially, into Jesus Christ Superstar.  The “miracles” were either sleight-of-hand parlor tricks (water into wine) or disturbing misfires (the reanimation of Lazarus, akin to something out of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.)  Every effort she made to get him to come home, to save him from his fate, was thwarted.  In the end, she could not stomach bearing witness to the crucifixion, and fled. 

This is territory that Mary does not want to revisit, yet which she cannot avoid.  As she give testament, Ms. Shaw chews up the stage, hurls herself from one end to the other, stomps her feet, strips naked and plunges into a pool of water, plays with a coil of barbed wire, and rearranges and batters the furniture and other props.

This is, indeed, a tour de force performance, one that is likely to bring Ms. Shaw a Tony nomination.  The thing is, though, The Testament of Mary could do with rather less of the relentless assault that marks the actress’s work here. This is a version of “the greatest story ever told,” after all; that ought to be able to hold an audience’s interest without all of the sturm und drang

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