One of the most fascinating political power struggles in history is being brought to life at Olney Theatre Center with a crackling and electric modernization of Schiller’s masterpiece by their Artistic Director Jason Loewith, who also directs. Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots square off in a (mostly) true-to-life Game of Thrones, and sparks fly all over the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab.
Elizabeth cannot yield power to a suitor, nor become a vessel for her successor; all the example she requires is Mary herself. Her three marriages and her life in exile/prison were perfect case studies of how precarious it was to be a queen regnant at the time. Queen of Scotland at six days old, and also briefly queen consort of France, she returned home a young widow to a country where multiple men vied to use her as a stepping stone to power. After her second husband was murdered and she married the man acquitted of the crime, popular uprisings forced her to abdicate the throne of Scotland in favor of her one-year-old son whom she never saw again, and spent the rest of her life in Elizabeth’s “care.”
The political spin surrounding these women from the point of view of their opposing camps is telling. It is nearly impossible to hear them referred to “That Bastard Elizabeth” or “The Scottish Whore” without hearing echoes of “Crooked Hillary” or “Pocahontas,” or obsessions about female political candidates’ “electability.”
Yet Loewith wisely steers away from direct reference to contemporary politics – the phrase “nevertheless she persisted” is thankfully not uttered – and trusts the play to resonate with topicality and lets us draw the parallels ourselves that are already laid bare. The modernized text and contemporary costumes, albeit with Elizabethan flourishes, create a timely and timeless world where we can make our own associations.
Mary Stuart from Olney Theatre Company closes June 9, 2019. Details and tickets
It is difficult, especially early in the play, to distinguish restraint by Eleasha Gamble as an actress with the restraint of her character; is the reserve her own or Mary’s? She does let loose when finally confronted with Elizabeth herself (in a historical flight of fancy; the meeting in all likelihood never happened), but prior to this, the apparent tentativeness on Gamble’s part makes the powerhouse performance of Megan Anderson more sharply defined.
One of Anderson’s chief assets as Elizabeth is how effectively she separates her public and private personas. Steely, unflinching, unyielding, then insecure, questioning, doubtful. She is savvy and knows that a single misstep will undo her. Anderson channels contemporary powerful women from Hillary Clinton to Margaret Thatcher, showing us what women have to endure and embrace to survive in a world of men.
[adsanity_rotating align=”aligncenter” time=”10″ group_id=”1455″ /]
Gamble does create a haunting portrait of a woman who cannot trust anyone, not the young Mortimer who swears his allegiance, nor even the lay priest taking her final confession before execution.
Chris Genebach is a grounded and earthy presence as Leicester, bringing a dose of candor to Elizabeth’s court between the poles of Mitchell Hébert’s mercy-peddling Shrewsbury and Paul Morella’s politically expedient Burleigh.
Jake Ryan Lozano also impresses as the young Mortimer – a fictional character amalgamated from various conspirators like Babington, Perry, and others. Schiller’s script makes his allegiances clear, but with Loewith’s revision and editing, he is much more ambiguous. We’re not sure where his loyalties lie, and at times it seems neither does he, until he makes his move.
Loewith co-designed the octagonal, reflective and occasionally rotating set with Richard Ouellette – evocative of the eight directions a queen can move in chess, and Colin K. Bills’ low-angled lighting makes for interesting moods and shadows. Ivania Stack’s blue jeans and dark dresses, at least until the very end, may disappoint those expecting Elizabethan drag. All in all, it’s a very minimalist production – a desk and a swivel chair are the only set pieces – which puts a welcome emphasis on the actors.
Some nitpicks – the script could benefit from further pruning, and I’m not sure why some characters used dialect and others didn’t – couldn’t tell if it was a directorial choice or if some actors decided not to attempt. And the pre-show where the actors interact with the audience, engaging them in conversation… why? But all in all, Olney has a production that cooks, that captivates and resonates at its best moments.
Historical note: Elizabeth may have won this battle of wills, but when she died with no offspring, the crown ultimately passed to Mary’s son James, who then became King of both England and Scotland; all subsequent British monarchs are direct descendants of her. Mary arguably won the long game.
Mary Stuart, adapted from Schiller and directed by Jason Loewith. Cast: Megan Anderson, Eleasha Gamble, Chris Genebach, Mitchel Hébert, Jake Ryan Lozano, Paul Morella. Set Design: Jason Loewith and Richard Ouellette. Costume Design: Ivania Stack. Lighting Design: Colin K Bills. Composer & Sound Design: Matthew M Nelson. Wig Design: Ali Pohanka. Fight Choreography: Casey Kaleba. Dialect Coach: Lisa Nathans. Production Stage Manager: Karen Currie. Produced by Olney Theatre Center. Review by John Geoffrion.
You must be logged in to post a comment.