Mary Stuart explores the complex relationship between two queens.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
The pure notes of an Elizabethan canticle swell to quiet the chatter of an opening night crowd and fill the air with keen expectation. As the lights dim all eyes are drawn to the stage where two queens kneel in two pools of light.
Lavishly clothed, each woman regards the audience with a keen but neutral gaze, and Mary Stuart, a dark tale of two women caught up in the swirl of history, begins at Carmel’s Golden Bough Theatre.
Their true story needs no rewriting to be tragic and sexy and cruel, with crowns in the balance, countries poised for war, religious zealots using vile and vicious tactics in their struggle for dominance while two powerful women lock wills in a battle that each ends up losing.
Mary Stuart, crowned the first queen of Scotland in her infancy, was betrothed as a child to the French dauphin whom she married at 15. She ascended to the throne of France at age 16 when her husband became King Francois II, was widowed at 17 and returned to rule her beloved Scotland at age 18. She found a Scotland twisted by religious strife, embroiled in dark plots and unfathomable alliances, particularly with England, which was ruled by her cousin Elizabeth I. Elizabeth, as the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII, was considered an usurper by the Catholics of her country, who considered Mary the rightful heir. Mary sought recognition as such from the English Parliament. But Catholics were suppressed and all politics grew increasingly fraught with religious overtones. In the words of another historical drama, A Lion in Winter, “every family has its ups and downs.”
There are no such lighter moments in this play. The original was written in the 19th century by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller and translated with an emphasis on the story’s parallels to contemporary politics by Peter Oswald in a new play that premiered in London in 2005 to thunderous acclaim. Here, it is presented by PacRep’s Carmel Shakespeare Festival in repertory with Macbeth, sharing most of the extraordinary production staff and featuring several of the standout performers. Both productions are mounted on a minimally-dressed stage and effectively use costumes in a more symbolic than literal way. Would that director Kenneth Kelleher had summoned for Mary Stuart some of the high energy that characterized his Macbeth to enliven this statically-staged production.
The first half of the evening is heavy going as we meet the characters in a succession of long expository exchanges. Following a much-needed intermission, the second act moves at a more lively pace with more imaginative staging.
The complexities of the historical relationship between Mary and Elizabeth are just too much to convey in an engaging evening of theater, and so this play sensibly focuses on the relationship of the two powerful women. Mary was a fabled beauty who learned early to wield her power through men—and eventually lost it through the men she chose. Elizabeth Tudor, the Virgin Queen, a brilliant stateswoman and a shrewd judge of people, was a slave to power and wielded it defiantly in a world of men. She was also obsessively jealous of the beautiful Mary.
The women are islands surrounded by a Greek chorus of men in suits. These courtiers swirl in and out of the story without ever gaining dimension, with the exception of Jack Powell as Elizabeth’s advisor, Lord Burleigh. Powell is extraordinarily commanding onstage—whether playing his three or four roles in Macbeth, or here as a pitiless powerbroker wielding authority by his influence on Elizabeth. Michael Navarra as Mary’s unwanted savior, Lord Mortimer, is appropriately passionate if ungainly.
The play depends on selling the complex relationship of the women. Mary is played with engaging timing and timbre by Marcia Pizzo, who emphasizes the Scottish queen’s girlish impetuosity while any allusions to her possible responsibility for the murder of her Scottish husband are lightly mentioned and hastily dismissed. Imprisoned by Elizabeth for 18 years, the historical Mary played the role of a religious martyr while conspiring endlessly with Catholic supporters beyond her prison walls. In this production Pizzo’s charming character commands our pity, but we never really are given enough reason to give her our respect.
The role of Elizabeth is occupied lavishly by Jessica Powell, who wields an imposing stature and commanding tone as the powerful queen. Her plummy theatricality and stentorian pronouncements are just a degree over the top even for the mistress of the Elizabethan age. Yet she succeeds in imbuing the almost mythical figure with a humanity that’s needed for the story to work. In the end, we recognize her indecisiveness about what to do with her rival. We understand her decision to execute her, and relate to her retreat from blame.
Static staging is the only deep flaw in this interesting production. It would have benefited much from as inventive a use of sound and lighting as director Kenneth Kelleher achieved in his smaller theater with Macbeth. With such complexities of backstory, the relationship of the two queens needed illumination—literally—to guide the audience to its conclusions.