Few dramatic works illustrate the twisted and self-serving aspects of politics in as entertaining a fashion as Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart. Mary Stuart is an inspired choice for a time of elections and governmental transition, and it receives an inspired production from the Washington Shakespeare Company.
The story opens with Mary, former Queen of Scotland who had fled to England seeking asylum, imprisoned following conviction for treason against her cousin Queen Elizabeth I for alleged involvement in assassination plots. Great irony arises from Mary’s query “How could I, an uneducated woman, compete with such oratory?” For Mary is indeed a formidable woman, one whose charisma and beauty have inspired Catholic followers at home and abroad who hope to install her on the throne in Elizabeth’s stead. Even in prison, Elizabeth and her nobles fear Mary capable of “plots and machinations” against the throne. Fearing the backlash that could result from Mary’s execution, they consider whether finding a way to have Mary die accidentally in jail.
It is a tribute to Schiller’s script and Oswald’s poetic adaptation that the legal circumstances surrounding her conviction are made interesting, fascinating, even. For example, does the fact that Mary was denied her rights to confront witnesses and see the evidence against her invalidate the trial? Can a Queen from another land be subject to the laws of England, and what would constitute a jury of her peers?Yet the story truly soars because of the overlay of the political with the personal. Mary’s contempt for a cousin who she views as a bastard usurper of the English throne blinds her to the realities of the situation, while Elizabeth is equally consumed by jealously for the passion that Mary inspires in men.
Schiller’s drama offers two wonderfully meaty roles for the actresses who would be Queens, and the leads of this production take full advantage of the opportunity. Both Heather Haney (Mary) and Sara Barker (Elizabeth) are fine actresses who have given skilled performances in many local productions, but both elevate their game to the highest levels in Mary Stuart. While they are younger than the historical characters or the leads in the recent Broadway production (which starred Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter), the energy and the rivalry of the two queens is enhanced by director Colin Hovde’s casting choices.
Haney’s Mary is a combustible mix of intelligence and passion, a woman who cannot accept the possibility of being truly powerless. Haney occupies the stage with a beautiful fire that makes both her hold over men and her threat to the crown absolutely plausible.
Beneath Barker’s regal dignity and crisp actions is a complicated wavering over how to resolve the situation. Her Elizabeth conveys moments of pinched jealously and personal despair that illustrate the loneliness that can come with queenly power.
These two actresses are merely part of an outstanding cast. Elizabeth’s court is full of compelling characters, from the commanding Lord Burleigh (Lee Liebeskind) to the sympathetic Earl of Shrewsbury (Dave Bobb) to the noble Amias Paulet (Chris Mancusi) who is pressed into service as Mary’s jailer. Joe Brack is a real standout as the Earl of Leicester, who is slickly seductive in manipulating Elizabeth into meeting Mary in a park (the highlight of the play) and who later proves equally duplicitous in bending circumstances to save himself.
Hovde astutely handles both the personal and the political. The characters relate to each other in convincing manner that never feels stagey. The modern parallels are pointedly made (legal shortcuts were taken due to the imminent threat, and the plotting reeks of the plausible deniability and strategic ambiguity favored by modern statesmen). He even has enough self-assurance to amp up the comedic aspects of the play, many of which involve the foolish plans of the young would-be hero Mortimer (an entertaining Alex Vaughan). Yet he never loses site of the fact that both women are each tragic figures.
The production itself makes maximum use of the black box theatre at Washington Shakespeare’s new home at the Artisphere. While the theatre does not allow for the massive setting and powerful use of light and sound that distinguished the recent Broadway production (much less the rainstorm in the park), the production design is appropriately stark and makes creative use of the simple thrust stage and adds an ingenious touch with a dozen or so wooden chairs.
The work is staged in modern dress, but thoughtfully costumed by Heather Lockard. Elizabeth appears in a burgundy sleeveless cocktail dress with black jacket, matching pumps, and enough jewelry to denote queenly power. Mary initially wears a more feminine dress consistent with her sensual power before later changing to an outfit more suitable for her fate. While the various lords and earls mostly wear dark business suits, Mortimer has a more youthful appearance with his striped shirt and tie and sports coat.
Even if you have seen Mary Stuart in a past production, Peter Oswald’s skillful adaptation gives the work new life. It is a work that honors both the story’s classical roots and modern sensibilities. The words that spill effortlessly out of the lips of the talented Washington Shakespeare Company’s cast offer a rich story presented in an intelligent and entertaining fashion.
Written by Friedrich Schiller
Adapted by Peter Oswald
Directed by Colin Hovde
Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Steven McKnight