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'Testament of Mary' review: Fiona Shaw shines in audacious drama

Fiona Shaw stars in "The Testament of Mary,"

Fiona Shaw stars in "The Testament of Mary," a new play by Colm T�ib�n, directed by Deborah Warner. Credit: Hugo Glendinning

Fiona Shaw has haunted T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" in an abandoned theater on 42nd Street. In her Tony-winning embodiment of "Medea," she made an ancient story as horrifically human as the news. Along the way, the Irish-born actress also snatched a little pop-culture immortality as Harry Potter's Aunt Petunia and a head witch in "True Blood."

But even for this magnificent daredevil and her inextricable collaborator for 25 years, Deborah Warner, a revisionist modern-dress monodrama channeling the mother of Jesus might be considered perilous territory. (A Catholic group protested the first preview last month, but, thus far, not again.)

For more secular theater lovers, however, the peril comes in missing "The Testament of Mary," adapted by Colm Tóibín from his own novella. With both enormous audacity and bottomless grief, Tóibín's 90-minute stunner imagines a version of the Christ story "from the silent woman we pray to."

In a preshow, Shaw, with her long, hard bones and her wind-swept cubist face, sits calmly behind a glass case as the familiar icon. Then she reappears in a sturdy gray dress over jeans and boots, puttering around the messy furniture-strewn set as if tending a garden -- or a memory.

She complains about apostles who keep interrogating her -- preparing to "change the world." "The world?" she asks with bemused incredulity. "All of it?"

Lest we mistake her exasperation for a lack of caring, she explains the importance of a chair. "It belongs to the empty space which love once filled," she says, dropping to it on the floor to kiss it, "someone who will not return."

This is a story of an abandoned mother, whose adored young son surrounded himself with "misfits" who came to call him the son of God. She waves off the idea of his followers with a toss of her cigarette. Yes, this Mary smokes. She also gets completely undressed to dunk in a well.

She describes the crucifixion in agonizing detail, but denies she stuck around to wash his body. She ran to save herself. She comes to believe the miracles, but doesn't like them. She just wants her son back.

In the preshow, we are invited onstage to walk around her world, which distressingly includes a live vulture tied to a stand. If you see the poor thing, please, apologize for our species.

WHAT "The Testament of Mary"

WHERE Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.

INFO $50-$125; 212-239-6200;

BOTTOM LINE Fiona Shaw in audacious stunner, a modern-dress mother of Jesus

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