NEW YORK (AP) -- It's quite a faceoff.
"Mary Stuart" superbly explores the link between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, royal relatives locked in a grim battle that only one can win. But what elevates this adaptation of Friedrich Schiller's venerable play to even greater heights are the thrilling performances of the actresses who portray these formidable ladies: Janet McTeer as Mary and Harriet Walter as Elizabeth.
The suspense is palpable despite the fact we know how the play will end. Credit director Phyllida Lloyd and adapter Peter Oswald, who have created a taut tale of political intrigue, a bruising contest in which the prize is England itself.
Lloyd is best known as the director of the stage and screen versions of "Mamma Mia!" Her "Mary Stuart," which opened Sunday at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, moves at a steady, sure pace, an artful blend of philosophical discussion and heightened melodrama.
And with the help of designer Anthony Ward, Lloyd has come up with a stunning visual conceit. They put the women in period, late 16th century costumes and the coterie of men who surround them in modern-dress, gray suits that suggest the environment of big-time power brokers.
Immediately it binds the women together, outsiders forced to find their way in a male-dominated world. Elizabeth may be queen, but she is constricted by the demands of duty, placating the populace as well as the ambitious advisers who surround her. Her haughtiness at the beginning of the evening, eventually gives way to a kind of psychological suffocation.
Mary is imprisoned, but, in a sense, jail and impending death release her, giving her the freedom to say what she thinks without regard. It allows McTeer to deliver a blazingly theatrical portrait. At first, furious at her imprisonment, she rails against Elizabeth, but gradually develops an inner calm. The woman finds comfort in her Catholic faith. "God holds me in his hands," Mary says at one point during her fateful meeting with Elizabeth.
Walter, done up in a high-necked gold and black gown, is equally mesmerizing, weirdly pinched but regal as she seeks advice from a parade of male advisers. She displays a wry sense of humor at the beginning of the play, acknowledging her uniqueness as a woman with power in a world of men. It stands in stunning contrast to her desolation at the end of the play, having triumphed over Mary yet still finding herself very much alone.
The men have been particularly well cast, creating credible, individualistic performances in roles that could become a blur. Among the more memorable portraits are Brian Murray's commonsense Shrewsbury, a man infused with a generosity of spirit, and John Benjamin Hickey as Shrewsbury's polar opposite, the duplicitous, calculating Leicester. An intense Chandler Williams also scores as Mortimer, an ardent young supporter of Mary.
But the women are the main focus here, and when the two queens finally meet in Act 2 after an artfully prolonged build-up, the fireworks are more than royal. Call them electrifying, lifting this version of "Mary Stuart" into the realm of high-powered, classic drama.