Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Lucky, Lucky Me

May 06, 2009

Janet McTeer as Mary Stuart
Photo: Neil Libbert 2009

I don’t necessarily have a lot to say about this week’s Tony nominations other than they seem strangely unexciting given what seemed an unusually good season given the economy and whatnot. But there were a couple shows I caught last week in New York included in this year’s list that I think are worth seeing, so I’ll mention them here. First off was the Donmar Warehouse production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart. Outside of the obvious anglophile history draw, given the romantic German origins of this piece, you might wonder, why bother? Of course, the first answer is the absolutely magnificent performances from Janet McTeer as the title character and Harriet Walter as her rival and fellow queen, Elizabeth I. These are big performances that immediately suck you in, believing they actually are the people they pretend to be. Even the well-worn fiction of the meeting between the two queens comes off as something out of a documentary here. It’s a stark but very attractive production, with only the leads in period costumes and the rest of the cast in modern dress. Against the black brick wall, the bits of color in the rival queens’ garments explode. Best of all, director Phyllida Lloyd mines Schiller’s play for every ounce of depth she can reach. Schiller becomes veritably Shakespearean in his ambitions if not necessarily as poetic in the language of this adaptation. Sadly, there were a significant number of empty seats for the Saturday matinee I attended. Mary Stuart may not have the marquee names of some of the other shows around town, but a fair sight more entertaining and thoughtful. Of course if you'd used this same staging for a production of Donizetti's operatic version of the same play you'd have endless bitching on how disrespectful it is to the author's intentions. Funny what a few blocks to the south will do for artistic license.

Lauren Ambrose, Geoffrey Rush, and Susan Sarandon
Photo: Joan Marcus 2009

Speaking of those names in lights, I also took in the revival of Ionesco’s Exit the King with Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon. And while this production, directed by Neil Armfield, has to work a little harder to get where it’s going, it is still surprisingly successful. The dark and sardonic tone of the play is expertly preserved and Geoffrey Rush has a field day with a performance that is markedly physical in its comedy. But with all the deserved recognition he’s received, it might be easy to overlook what I found to be incredibly attentive and complementary performances from Lauren Ambrose and Susan Sarandon as the King’s two wives. Ambrose is the emptier-headed optimist, looking for denial around every corner. What makes her work so interesting is how expertly it plays off Sarandon’s direct and knowing bringer-of-bad-news queen. Sarandon could be almost magical at times in her ability to milk laughter from the driest of lines. Even the somewhat sentimental final sequence of the play seems tolerable in her hands. The set and costumes are garish enough to evoke a certain depravity without it devolving into something from a television program. Exit the King is undoubtedly an unusual play to have return to New York at this time even with the big stars, but it’s there to be savored and enjoyed.


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