NEW YORK — Fiona Shaw's small Broadway dressing room had the look of a makeshift bar. There were more than a dozen bottles of wine stashed on a high shelf.
"It looks like a sort of speakeasy, doesn't it?" the actress said, looking up at the gifts left by well-wishers that were now on duty for post-show cheers. "Over many months, we hope. Not in a night."
Visitors might be handed a glass of pinot but the hostess would rather stay as sober as possible as she tackles another astonishing part in a career populated by plenty of them. This new one may even top the rest: the Virgin Mary, whose son turned water into wine.
Shaw, perhaps best known for playing Harry Potter's aunt, is re-imagining the life of the mother of Christ in Irish writer Colm Toibin's New York premiere stage adaptation of his novella "The Testament of Mary," a haunting, provocative work, at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Shaw, 54, is alone onstage – except for the early presence of a real-life vulture – as she tells her version of "The Greatest Story Ever Told," one that often sharply veers from traditional Christianity.
The role is bold, mixing the human and divine as well as 2,000 years of history and art: "It's like surfing on something really big. On a whale or something," she says. "It's a really big story and I'm just staying on top of it."
Toibin's Mary is a woman living out her last days in exile with the excruciating memory of watching the crucifixion of her only son. She rejects the idea that her son was the son of God and that he died to save the world.
"I hope it's a bit dangerous, but I hope it's not too dangerous. I have no wish for anyone to be in any danger," she says. "It creates excitement. Theater must be exciting."
The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property – an organization of lay Roman Catholics based in Spring Grove, Pa. – has denounced the play as "blasphemous," saying it "deserves the most vehement and indignant repudiation from the faithful." In late March, members protested outside the theater.
Shaw, who grew up Catholic in Ireland, rejects the criticism. The play is not lampooning Mary or the religion, she says, but is a playwright's lyrical imagining. "There's no agenda," Shaw says. "This is a very dignified play about a very dignified woman."
She says her Mary can be watched without any prior knowledge of religion and stands for any woman who has suffered. "I'm in a novel. I'm not in the Bible," she says. "It's not theology we're playing with. It's the cultural story."
Shaw has found some inspiration in the book "Wave" by Sonali Deraniyagala, which sits in her dressing room. The author, who lost her parents, her husband and her two young sons in the 2004 Asian tsunami, explores how she handled such profound grief.
Toibin, long a fan of the actress, says Shaw, who manages to "embody the iconic while not losing sight of the human," turns in an astonishing performance for both its physical and emotional demands.
"She may for a second brighten. She may for a second darken. She may for a second wonder. She may for a second look even more frightened," he says. "You're talking about levels of feeling that are very serious and must take lumps out of her."
Playing Mary makes perfect sense for Shaw, who specializes in powerful, heart-pounding works, from a modern-dress "Medea" to Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days" to performing Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." She even played the title role in Shakespeare's "Richard II."
"It's a no-brainer for me to do things that are interesting rather than not interesting. I'm dazzled by the pleasure of the variation I get offered," she says.
Her roles – she's done the somber film "Anna Karenina" and the silly "Super Mario Bros." – also include a part in the movie "Three Men and a Little Lady" and one onstage this winter in Howard Barker's "Scenes From an Execution." She's able to appear in the cable vampire series "True Blood" in the same year she does "John Gabriel Borkman" on a London stage.
"Nobody chooses the middle of the road, do they?" she asks. "I think people are all trying to make their mark. That's all we're doing. It's just the imagination meeting life. That's all it is. It's the fun of taking big ideas in your head and putting them up against words."
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