Macbeth, Mary and Midler: Solo Turns on Broadway

The Broadway season ends with a spate of one-person shows — two of them terrific

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Philip Rinaldi Publicity / Paul Kolnik / AP Photo

Fiona Shaw as Mary in “The Testament of Mary,” by Colm Toibin

One actor alone onstage — not necessarily my idea of a good time at the theater. Yet one-person shows continue to have enormous appeal: for actors (the ultimate ego trip), for producers (less expensive to stage), and very often for critics, who find it hard to resist a showboating star. I usually do, but two extraordinary new solo shows on Broadway have almost revived my faith in the genre. A third, not so much.

The Irish actress Fiona Shaw and director Deborah Warner have collaborated on on adventurous solo pieces several times before. Some of them, like their adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, I found pretty hard going. But their latest, The Testament of Mary — the Virgin Mary, in a monologue imagined by Irish novelist Colm Toibin — is both an absorbing piece of theater and a challenging work of theological inquiry.

Toibin’s take on the religious icon is revisionist without being dismissive (which hasn’t stopped at least one Catholic group from calling it “blasphemous”). His goal is to strip away the Biblical iconography and speculate on what the mother of Jesus might have been like in the real world — to separate the human from the holy. His Mary is not the mother of God, but the mother of a man; she’s grief-stricken, sardonic, suspicious of her son’s followers (“misfits,” she calls them), skeptical of his divinity. Her narrative is fragmented and impressionistic, but with two moving extended passages: her haunting account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (a miracle that she views as transgressive and dangerous) and the Crucifixion itself, rendered in language as graphic and harrowing as any I’ve encountered on stage.

Shaw, donning a drab brown cloak and wandering in an abstract, Beckett-like landscape (a ladder, an uprooted tree, an empty birdcage, rolls of barbed wire) gives a titanic performance: earthy, poetic, brutally honest (she strips naked at one point, climbing into her bath), so intense it leaves you exhausted. In her many classic roles, ranging from Medea to Hedda Gabler, Shaw has sometimes struck me as mannered and self-conscious, but here she seems galvanized by Toibin’s lyrical but concrete language, which forces us to see everything with fresh eyes — from the crown of thorns (a “thing made of thick black spines,” in Mary’s homely, firsthand description)  to the birth of Christianity, as those pestering apostles tell Mary that what she has seen will “change the world.” Even in this earthbound, alternative version of the gospel, we know they are right.

Alan Cumming’s solo version of Macbeth — produced by the National Theater of Scotland and first staged last year at New York’s Lincoln Center— is just as impressive. The play is set in a mental ward, where Cumming is deposited by two attendants at the start of the play, dressed in hospital garb and left alone to act out the tragedy, playing all the roles himself, under the watchful eye of (and occasional help from) the attendants peering from an observation window above.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth seems to lend itself most readily to this kind of deconstruction. (The site-specific off-Broadway play Sleep No More also breaks the play apart, scattering scenes and characters throughout the rooms of a dilapidated hotel.) Maybe because the tragedy is less satisfying as a psychological study than as an almost abstract picture of one man’s existential confrontation with the void — that “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Cumming spits out that famous speech with real fury, and his performance is riveting throughout. With his light, Scottish-accented voice, and nervous, sparrowlike movements, he flits from character to character, making little attempt (with a couple of exceptions) to create distinctive “voices,” relying instead on the creative staging by directors John Tiffany (Black Watch) and Andrew Goldberg. Three video monitors flick on and off, standing in for the three witches and providing other alternate views of the action. A tiny child’s suit of clothes is held up to represent the murder of Macduff’s children; a faceless dummy is Malcolm, the slain king’s son; Cumming does both sides of one dialogue by talking to himself in a mirror. There’s horror-show blood and creepy musical underscoring, and Cumming also gets to strip naked for a dip in the bathtub. Purists will complain that the play has been drastically cut to fit into a compact hour and 45 minutes. But the essentials are still here, and no less powerful.

Bette Midler doesn’t strip naked in I’ll Eat You Last, in which she plays legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. She doesn’t even get up from the couch, for gosh sakes. Her one-woman show doesn’t really belong in this roundup, for it’s a far more conventional Broadway crowd-pleaser: a popular singer and screen star doing a solo turn in which she gets to drop names, dish about bad movie-star behavior, and make bitchy wisecracks about how to survive in the Hollywood shark tank.

It can hardly miss — but actually it does. John Logan’s script is a fairly routine jumble of Hollywood anecdotes and filmland witticisms (“When Brian De Palma rips off Hitchcock, it’s not theft – it’s homage”), and Midler seems oddly constrained, even monotonous, adopting an affected, pugnacious-dame singsong — “like a gum-cracking Warner Bros. second lead,” she describes it. For once, Midler is predictable. Frankly, if the trade deadline hasn’t passed, I’d let Fiona Shaw play Sue Mengers one night and give Bette one shot at the Virgin Mary. Now that would be blasphemous.

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