Inhuman bondage

Mary Bryant

By Tom O'Neil
Directed by Constantine Tariloff
Thirteenth Street Repertory Company
50 West 13th St. (917/363-2369;
Non-union production (closes Apr. 10)
Review by Deborah S. Greenhut

Various historical accounts agree that in 1786, Mary Bryant was exported from England to the Botany Bay Penal Colony in Australia. Her crime? Mary stole some clothing. While imprisoned, she gave birth to a daughter and also met and married a man who was a smuggler, with whom she had a son. The family escaped prison and sailed to Timor, but they were caught and remanded to the British authorities. Only Mary survived the harsh return to London. Her second trial, for that attempted escape, was a cause célèbre that drew enough attention to effect a change in prison conditions.

Playwright Tom O'Neil's carefully textured period piece Mary Bryant makes exceptionally fine use of Mary's sartorial tragedy. O'Neil's Mary stole a scarf -- an excellent invention that afforded poignancy to her predicament. Director Constantine Tariloff made expert use of discreet zones of the stage, choreographing predatory circles of intrigue around Mary, the iconic center of the play. Appropriately only her barrister's sincerity entered Mary's defiant citadel. The narrowing motions heightened the suspense as the plot's noose drew tighter and tighter.

Prior to her trial, the imprisoned Mary Bryant, played with affecting radiance by Kristen Hammer, defied the oppression of Newgate prison by resisting an offensive plea bargain offer from the prosecutor, Mr. Kimball -- played with discomfiting hypocrisy by Ken Rothstein. Instead, Mary savored the unexpected advocacy of James Boswell, as played by Jason Milton with a naive, gleaming earnestness. During the first act, Mary covered the side walls of the otherwise utilitarian set with haunting drawings of her lost family, to hold onto her dream of life. These drawings commented mournfully on all the action to follow.

Act II encapsulated Mary's trial, colored by the repugnant intrigues of Kimball with Lord Simon (Lars Stevens), who developed a sudden partisan "interest" in the case. Rothstein and Stevens engaged in a well-executed fencing match where they hit all their marks precisely, while circling each other like wary lions defending their territories. Their power struggle turned cruelly on the hapless Servant, played with the right mixture of obsequiousness and fear by George Carroll. As the intermittently apoplectic judge, Lord Pemberton, Gavin Smith maintained thunderous control of his courtroom. (This actor warranted special recognition for his spirited return to the show following a medical emergency.)

The excellent 18th-century costumes (Tom Harlan & Sarah Goldberg) further extended the irony of Mary's small theft, in that her own simple dress contrasted with the men's splendid and numerous costume changes -- including everything from richly tailored suits to moiré robes and white wigs. Effectively dramatic lighting (Gavin Smith) comprised the diverse effects needed for Mary's reveries and for gun-battle pyrotechnics. In addition, the company made excellent use of the theatre's black-painted brick walls, which represented equally well the bleak world of Newgate; the aristocrat's corrupt drawing room, where bribes were passed in smuggled leather on silver trays; and the jaded halls of British justice.

O'Neil and the Thirteenth Street Repertory captured brilliantly the essence of Mary's story and time in this cautionary tale that offers a warning to our own century no less than it did to hers.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 Deborah S. Greenhut