Our Heroines

This week I saw God of Carnage starring Janet McTeer and have started reading Dorothy L. SayersStrong Poison, a mystery which introduced the literary world to Harriet Vane (most famously played by Harriet Walter on the BBC). So what better way to spend a Friday evening than recalling the two ladies in their acclaimed run of Mary Stuart from last season? (And PBS, where was Great Performances when we needed you to air this gem?)

First up are some of the favorite scenes:

And here are the ladies being interviewed during a Vanity Fair photo shoot:

After seeing both this production and the import of Hamlet last year, I will gladly see anything the Donmar Warehouse wants to bring to NY.

My Favorite Performances, 2009

Jayne Atkinson, Blithe Spirit. The character of Mrs. Ruth Condomine in the Noel Coward classic isn’t usually the wife audiences leave the theatre talking about. That honor tends to go to the actress playing the devilishly deceased first wife Elvira. The model of upper classic British waspishness, Atkinson gave one of the most underrated and truly memorable performances last season. As Ruth, the actress dominated her scenes with Rupert Everett and Christine Ebersole with tweedy precision and gave a performance that got funnier and more vivid throughout the run of the play.

Jon Michael Hill, Superior Donuts. I recall hearing from friends when the play first opened at Steppenwolf, that Mr. Hill was a name to remember. His performance as the idealistic and almost fatally flawed Franco was the spark plug that really gave Tracy Letts’ new (and gentler) comedy its legs. His chemistry with star Michael McKean was genuine, but it was the younger actor in his first major Broadway role who walked away with this show in his pocket. It’s a performance that will one day give those who’ve seen it bragging rights.

Angela Lansbury, Blithe Spirit and A Little Night Music. It’s a rare thing to be able to put an actor on your list twice, especially when one is a five-time Tony winning octagenarian. Ms. Lansbury is riding high on her late-career renaissance on Broadway. While reviews for both productions have been mixed-to-positive, Lansbury has received nothing but love letters from the critics. Playing two very different Madame’s: the daffy, endearing Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s classic and the austere, disapproving matriarch nee courtesan in Stephen Sondheim’s musical revival, Lansbury is the epitome of a star. She exudes grace, poise, charm and a rare star presence that outshines her fellow cast members (in both productions). She’s already now in line for another Tony nomination and the possibility of a record-breaking sixth win.

Stephen Mangan, The Norman Conquests. Mangan’s titanic comic performance in the Ayckbourn trilogy may be the greatest I’ve ever seen in all my years of theatregoing. Mangan’s ability to take the irritable nature of Norman and garner the audience’s sympathy and affection was nothing short of breathtaking, a stand out among one of the most uniformly excellent ensembles seen on Broadway this decade. As I’ve said before, all due respect to Joe Turner’s Roger Robinson, the Tony Award should have gone to Mangan. At the end of the third play in the trilogy, he exasperatedly shouts “I only wanted to make you happy.” Mr. Mangan’s performance did, and how.

Jan Maxwell, The Royal Family. The stylish revival of the Kaufman-Ferber classic about a Barrymore-esque acting dynasty in NYC earned Maxwell some of the best notices of her already auspicious career as the flighty Julie Cavendish, the center of her eccentric family upon whom all burdens rest. In a bravura moment in the second act, Maxwell stopped the show both time I saw it with a comic monologue/breakdown that ended with the elegant, sophisticated Maxwell doing a faceplant into the lip of the stage. However, for evidence of her reality onstage, one only had to look at her reaction in the final moments as the actress finds her mother dead in the living room. I first saw the actress in her memorable turn in the short-lived Coram Boy in 2007. Fortunately, she gets to bring the funny to the upcoming revival of Lend Me a Tenor this March. (Honorable mention to Rosemary Harris for providing such comic support to Maxwell, and by providing an haunting eleven o’clock moment during the final scene of the play).

Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, Mary Stuart. In this instance, I feel you can’t have one without the other. They are only onstage together for about ten minutes of the play’s three hour running time, but whenever one is onstage alone, the other is still deeply present. Both performances resonated with gusto: McTeer had the showier title role, with heightened, crowd-pleasing intensity while Walter had the quieter, albeit more interesting role of Elizabeth I. The symbiosis of their towering performances is what made the Donmar import a must-see revival last season.

Jason O’Connell, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). This year marked my first visit to Boscobel and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. I had also never before seen this comic romp through the Bard’s entire folio, with room for improvisation, camp, cross-dressing and even audience participation. Performed by three actors (with one caustic prop mistress), O’Connell stood out with his comic flair and energy. The actor was the epitome of outrageous one moment, and the next stunned the audience to rapturous silence with a breathtaking delivery of “What a piece of work is man.” Now, here I must also give an honorable mention to another performance of his: he was also playing Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing in rep at the same time. His performance there was also quite memorable and distinctly funny, but it was in the Complete Works that he really stood out. I look forward to going back to HVSF next summer to see what Mr. O’Connell will have in store for audiences.

Phylicia Rashad, August: Osage County. To say Rashad was a revelation as the pill-poppin’, chain-smokin’ mother from hell in Tracy Letts’ brilliant three act drama would be a colossal understatement. Ms. Rashad finished out the Broadway run of the Tony and Pulitzer winner with a riveting and often terrifying performance, with nuances and touches that opened my eyes to parts of the script I thought I knew backwards and forwards. I will never forget being at the final Broadway performance; the one and only time Rashad played opposite Tony-winning Mattie Fae Rondi Reed.

Thomas Sadoski, Reasons to be Pretty. If there’s one thing you should never do, it’s tell your best friend you like your girlfriend because she has a regular face, not a pretty face. Sadoski’s Greg learns that the hard way when he says that about Marin Ireland, which sets off a series of introspective, self-affirming events that turns the well-read, non-confrontational slacker into a man. LaBute’s play is stinging, vicious and often violent. While Ireland walked away a critics’ darling over her performance, which involved a gasp-inducing monologue at a mall food court, it was Sadoski who was the heart and soul of the play, leaving a lasting impression as he gives his job the proverbial figure and grows up as the lights fade out.

How’s about this for Janet McTeer & Harriet Walter…?

Tonight before 9 to 5, SarahB and I were looking at the window cards hanging in the area outside the Marquis Theatre. One of them was for the original Broadway production of Lettice & Lovage starring Maggie Smith & Margaret Tyzack, which won both ladies Tony awards. I thought, why not make this the next vehicle for Janet McTeer & Harriet Walter?

‘Oh hey, Janet McTeer. What up?’

This year, a small section of the bloggerati embarked on what Kari would call ‘The Summer of Harriet Walter.’ Ms. Walter costarred with Janet McTeer in a highly acclaimed revival of Mary Stuart, that just ended its limited engagement at the Broadhurst Theatre this past weekend. The production was beautiful enough, but the leading ladies became part of our cheeky lore this summer after the Tony award debacle where their identities were switched during the presentation of Best Actress in a Play. Marcia Gay Harden rectified the moment in her acceptance speech, but that didn’t stop us from finding inestimable pleasure in the technical glitch.

I first saw the production in May, capping a week where I saw seven shows in six days. I was exhilarated by the performances of the two leading ladies, and how the revisionist way in which the story was told in this particular adaptation. However, I never really sat down and wrote about it. That was one of the reasons why I felt compelled to return for the final performance, not only to enjoy the company of my fellow bloggers, but to give the show its fair due here on the blog.

British history is fascinating. I have found myself long fascinated with it, dating back to a memorable trip to London when I was 10. There has been a millenium’s worth of scandal, bloodshed, sex and intrigue (et al). From William the Conqueror taking on the Normans to the tabloid obsession with the current royal family, they have made quite a claim on fame and our interest.

However, the Tudor/Elizabethan era remains one of the most examined and dramatized in British history. Henry VIII, his six wives, his psychotic obsession with producing a male heir and his split from the Roman Catholic church finds its way into our books, films, televisions and on our stages.

The schism wreaked havoc on Britain in the generations that followed. Henry’s children found themselves at odds with one another, as (“Bloody”) Mary I remained a devout Catholic. By the time Elizabeth was crowned the Queen of England, she had already lost her mother Anne Boleyn when she was a toddler, been disinherited, removed from the line of succession, locked in the Tower of London and later placed on house arrest and found her life constantly in danger.

However, after the unsuccessful coup d’etat to place Lady Jane Grey (named in Edward’s will) on the throne of England, Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England. Her cousin Mary of Scotland posed a legitimate threat, with many Catholic rebels feeling that she and not Elizabeth should be on the throne of England. While Mary was alive, Elizabeth’s life was in constant danger. Historically, the two ladies never met face to face. However, that doesn’t make for interesting theatre, so every dramatization of their conflict has included fictionalized secret meetings which inevitably prove to be the most memorable scenes.

Friedrich Schiller’s play premiered in Germany in 1800 and has remained an immensely popular dramatization, even becoming the Donizetti opera Maria Stuarda in 1834. The play has seen numerous translations and adaptations. Peter Oswald adapted the play for the Donmar Warehouse production in 2005 directed by Phyllida Lloyd. It took four years for the director and leading ladies to be free for a Broadway run, and it was well worth the wait.

The ladies only the share the stage for about ten minutes in the play’s three hour running time, but oh, my friends, those were the moments worth waiting for. The first act gets a little bogged down in exposition, though the leading ladies are excellent. It’s fascinating to watch the two ladies command the stage. Mary is a showier part – a woman finding herself at the end of her wits fighting valiantly (and in vain) for her life after experiencing twenty years imprisonment and considerable oppression. McTeer is in total domination whenever she is onstage, a combination of her impressive height and immense talent.

Harriet Walter complements the powerhouse McTeer with an understated, wry and unfailingly fascinating performance as Elizabeth I. Where McTeer finds herself isolated in prison with her nurse (the lovely Maria Tucci), Elizabeth finds herself isolated in her position as Queen regnant surrounded by men who are either terrified of her or are trying to control her.

Both roles are incredibly demanding and both actresses were beyond excellent. The first act sets up the second act confrontation, which consists of a ten minute rain storm and a stunning effect upon Elizabeth’s entrance. In those few minutes, we watch Mary as she grovels at her cousin’s feet begging for her life. Elizabeth, shrewd and uncanny, is constantly aware of the political consequences of both sparing Mary and executing her, and treats her cousin with a coolness bordering on contempt. McTeer’s big moment comes during this scene, when she realizes that begging is futile and decides to unleash twenty years of pent-up rage on Elizabeth capping it with the line to end all lines “THE THRONE OF ENGLAND IS DESECRATED BY A BASTARD!!!”

Rarely are the ladies by themselves, and are usually in the presence of men (in Elizabeth’s case, she looks like she is perpetually caged in by the cast of Mad Men) yet it always feels as though both women are completely isolated – ironically enough sharing the understanding of the figurative burden that comes with a crown.

John Benjamin Hickey as the duplicitous Earl of Leicester, Brian Murray as the kindly Shrewsbury and the austere Nicholas Woodeson as the severe and calculating Lord Burleigh were the more impressionable of the gentlemen. Lloyd created some fascinating visuals: the abrupt opening invading Mary’s chambers, the trinity of counselors addressing Elizabeth while her back is to the audience, the unexpected entrance of Elizabeth at the top of the second act that ends the rainstorm, Mary accepting her fate with grace, in the fabled red gown, and the last searing image of Elizabeth stripped of her wig, period gown and makeup alone with herself as the lights dim.

After the performance, I waited around with the ladies while they made their pilgrimages at the stage door (where Marian…Marian Seldes made an appearance) then we headed off to Angus for our usual routine. This time we found ourselves seated at a table next to McTeer, Seldes and Brian Murray who were waiting for the closing party. Shortly thereafter we were told to “pipe down” by an irascible older woman who was apparently having a difficult time conversing with her friend due to our excessive noise (Excuse us for living). But we were very lucky that Arsenic and Old Lace were already done with dessert, so we were pretty much left on our own at the back of the restaurant to be raucous and randy.

Once we wrapped up at Angus, we ventured back across the street to the Broadhurst Theatre so Sarah could have a look. We followed suit, while Kari took more pictures. We realized our Mary Stuart acquaintances hadn’t crossed the street but were making their way toward Times Square. We waved goodbye, only to see someone else waving back at us. Upon realizing it was, of all the people in the world, Janet McTeer, Roxie shouted out affably, “Oh hey, Janet McTeer. What up?!” To which McTeer continued to smile and wave, while the rest of us were doubled over in laughter. Needless to say in terms of “quote of the day,” Ms. Z wins hands down.

Though we ventured up to the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble and then O’Neals for one more nightcap, that final exchange on 44th Street, in front of the Broadhurst and all that we hold dear, marked the official end to the Summer of Harriet Walter.

Random Thoughts on This and That

I’ve been looking over the upcoming season and I gotta say I’m most excited this fall for Hamlet with Jude Law as it’s my favorite Shakespeare tragedy (and I’ve never seen it live), Oleanna because I enjoy Bill Pullman, A Little Night Music because of its rumored cast and the Kennedy Center import of Ragtime. Did I fail to mention Superior Donuts? After August: Osage County, I’ll see anything Tracy Letts writes. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else that I’m forgetting about… Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to?

I’m watching the the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! as I type. For those who don’t know, the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein smash was shot twice, once in CinemaScope (an anamorphic lensed widescreen system using an aspect ratio of 2.55:1) and in the brand new Todd-AO, a large format 70mm system developed by Mike Todd. Todd-AO used a wide-angled lens, and a deeply curved screen which was meant to rival the expensive and impractical three camera Cinerama. Todd-AO didn’t require anamorphic image compression and displayed a spherical aspect ratio of 2.20:1.

Each scene was shot twice in each process which means there are two versions of the film available. The most notable difference between the two are the opening credits, but there are also differences in line readings and camera angles. When it originally opened in 1955, the Todd-AO format played the major roadshow engagements in NY and other major markets. The traditional CinemaScope version played other theatres throughout the country. The CinemaScope version made the initial video releases, but was supplanted by the restoration of the Todd-AO print, which was marked with superior sound and image quality. In 2005, 20th Century Fox released a 2-disc special edition containing both versions, though for some reason the Todd-AO transfer doesn’t improve on the 1999 release, except in making it 16:9 friendly. There’s a comprehensive website called the American Widescreen Museum which goes into explicit detail on the history and technological details of these different processes that are for the most part no longer used in filmmaking.

This video of Gloria Grahame singing “I Cain’t Say No” gives you an idea of the different versions:

The following year, Carousel was shot twice in CinemaScope and a process called CinemaScope 55 in an attempt to combat Paramount’s VistaVision process. The new CinemaScope process was an experimentation with 55 mm film that was heralded in both Carousel and The King and I. The idea of shooting Carousel twice is what led Frank Sinatra to quit the project, since he didn’t like the idea of shooting two films for the price of one. Ironically enough, they abandoned the 35mm shoot during filming. CinemaScope 55 was actually never really used: both R&H films were shot in 55mm stock and had their prints reduced onto regular 35mm, since it was more feasible than requiring movie houses to accommodate the unusual film size. From what I understand, the 55mm prints were never even used.

I’m still unable to get The Norman Conquests out of my head. So I decided to watch Table Manners from the 1977 BBC adaptation. It’s an entirely different animal from the recent revival, but it is still quite extraordinary. The television version stars Tony-Award winner Tom Conti as Norman. After Stephen Mangan it is seriously difficult to imagine any other actor in the part and unfortunately Mr. Conti’s performance suffers (The problem here is he’s not nearly as likable in the breakfast scene, in fact he’s downright irritating). David Trougham is a bit too stiff for Tom. However, Richard Briers makes for a game Reg, while Fiona Walker scores as Ruth. Penelope Keith won the bulk of the praise and a BAFTA award for her turn as Sarah (deservedly so – she was the only original London cast member to reprise her role onscreen). It was particular fun discovering that Jessica Hynes’ fellow Shaun of the Dead actor Penelope Wilton played the same role here in the TV adaptation (and quite well). Will be getting around to Living Together and Round and Round the Garden before long.

Sadly, this is out of print on DVD in the UK and has only been released on VHS in the US. BBC America, get on it! However you can get a sampling of it on youtube. Here are the first ten minutes of Table Manners:

There are two weeks left for you to catch Mary Stuart. If you haven’t had the opportunity, run don’t walk to the Broadhurst. Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter are giving titanic performances as Mary and Elizabeth I, respectively. It’s worth the price of admission for the first scene of the second act alone, which depicts the fictional meeting between the two monarchs. The two leading ladies are breathtaking and deserve to be seen, again and again and again. Plus, there’s a fantastic discount code for the rest of the run. This one is not to be missed.

I’m off to Long Island for the weekend. A friend is getting married in Centereach (sadly no East Hampton this trip) and the honor of my presence has been requested, so I will resume my blog perch on Sunday evening. I’ll be thinking of my friends spending some quality time with those titans at the Broadhurst tomorrow while enjoying marital libations.