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A Mulligan Stew of Great Acting

June 6th, 2011

"Through a Glass Darkly". Photo by Ari Mintz.

The lovely and heart-breakingly talented film actress Carey Mulligan (Pride and Prejudice, Never Let Me Go, and Oscar-nominated for An Education) returns to the stage tonight in an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. Presented by The Atlantic Theater Company at the New York Theater Workshop through July 3rd, the melancholy play revolves around a family’s struggle to reconnect–and deal with a daughter’s mental illness–while at a beach retreat suffused with memories of their absent mother and wife.

I’ll refrain from giving a full review given opening night protocols (I’m a good Catholic boy like that) but I will say that it is a worthwhile evening, emotionally acute if slightly bound to the straightforwardness of its screenplay roots. It should come as no surprise to anyone who saw her in the magnificent 2008 revival of The Seagull (egregiously overlooked by the Tonys that season) that Carey Mulligan is wondrous. This is no film actress “slumming it” on stage. In fact, following directly after seeing Derek Jacobi in King Lear and Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, her performance completed a fascinating triptych of the last 50 years of (British) theater acting styles. So, put on your tweed jacket, crank up the theme to “Masterpiece Theater” and let’s survey the thespian territory from grand classicism to muscular method-ology, finally landing at bare naturalism:

"King Lear". Image via Google.

The Entertainer:  Judging by Derek Jacobi’s King Lear (just closed at BAM), 72 is the new 30. He was commanding, magnetic, heartbreaking and, dare I say it, sexy. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him as he swiftly and expertly navigated this most challenging of tragic roles. What stood out, though, was his awareness of the theatrical space, playing to the last row with a presentational verve, dynamic vocal control and boldly stylized choices (such as in his “childlike” madness, burbling and squeaking like a toddler). As heightened as it may have been, this “classical” performance never rang false but instead illuminated the text and proved Jacobi to be a master showman and storyteller.

The Transformer:  Much has been said (even by me) about Mark Rylance’s Tony-nominated work in Jerusalem, however, only once you’ve seen this soft-spoken, gentle actor in an interview does it strike you how truly astonishing his transformation is. Brash, dangerous and unpredictable, his character “Johnny” could not be more opposite the persona he projects in “real life”. The physical transformation, alone, is mesmerizing–hip twisted, leg stiff, back bowed to give his chest a broken yet defiant rooster jut. Is it any wonder Rylance thanks his chiropractor in the program?

The Natural:  Playing a woman on the edge of sanity, it would be tempting to bring on the theatrics, but Carey Mulligan remains steadfastly honest amid the melodrama. She is not one to disappear into a role, unrecognizable, but instead she is suffused with a role, giving of herself with naked transparence. Reactive and entirely present, she seems incapable of a false moment even as the play requires her to flip between states of mental illness within a single sentence. Nothing feels planned (though it must require intense preparation to be this free); everything feels lived. She seems to simply “believe” and, therefore, we do to.

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