Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier
When: through April 15
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Friedrich Schiller’s play may be called “Mary Stuart,” but the main issue in the 1800 drama is whether or not Queen Elizabeth I will order the execution of her cousin, aka Mary, Queen of Scots. Using the approachable new version by Peter Oswald, here dubbed “Schiller’s Mary Stuart,” which premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2005, Chicago Shakespeare Theater brings this fictionalized history to life thanks to director Jenn Thompson and a commendable cast headed by K.K. Moggie as Mary and Kellie Overbey as Elizabeth.
Written in five acts but now compressed to two, the nearly three-hour-long play is a series of arguments that sometimes get bogged down in repetition. Its centerpiece is a completely fabricated showdown between Mary and Elizabeth (they never met in real life) that should ignite with fireworks but instead falls a little flat. Even the build-up arguably doesn’t have the impact it could because, though increasingly well-versed in matters of national security, contemporary American audiences don’t really understand the fear and hatred between Protestants and Catholics in Elizabethan England. For us, the power struggle is basically between two very different, very strong-willed women.
When the action opens, Roman Catholic Mary has been imprisoned for almost two decades (since 1568) and is being held at Fotheringhay Castle. She has been denied visitors and creature comforts and is attended only by her devoted nurse, Hanna Kennedy (Barbara Robertson, who played Elizabeth in Court Theatre’s 2001 production), and her knight-guardian, Amias Paulet (Kevin Gudahl). Deposed in Scotland, Mary originally came to England seeking promised aid from Elizabeth but was locked up instead, ostensibly for killing her husband but really because she’s the focal point of Catholic plots to overthrow and even assassinate the Protestant Virgin Queen. The matter comes to a head because Mary’s convicted of conspiring in one such plot based on the testimony of two witnesses, though she denies any guilt.
While Elizabeth is reluctant to kill her own kin, she’s also cognizant of the threat posed by Mary’s legitimate claim to the English throne and popularity with Catholics. Her courtiers have clear agendas and try to sway her accordingly–in long speeches. Lord Burleigh (David Studwell), the high treasurer, counsels getting rid of the threat by executing Mary as soon as possible. George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury (Robert Jason Jackson), is in favor of showing mercy, as is the French ambassador (Patrick Clear). Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Tim Decker), Elizabeth’s favorite, works both sides. He says it will be to Elizabeth’s advantage to grant Mary’s request for a meeting, but at the same time, he’s an old flame of Mary’s who wants to help her, or so it seems.
Meanwhile, Mortimer (Andrew Chown), Paulet’s nephew, divulges to Mary his secret conversion to Catholicism and hatches a plot to free her. He also declares his passionate love for her, so passionate that the almost rapes her, much to her dismay—and our disbelief given his presumed respect, though perhaps this is just one more example of his ineptitude, since his scheme fails dismally.
Leicester’s plan doesn’t go too well, either. When the queens “accidentally” meet, Mary at first tries to counter Elizabeth’s haughty superiority with humble supplications, but her pride soon takes over, and the encounter degenerates into accusations and recriminations between the thrice-married monarch who’s had trouble holding onto power and the “virgin” working on being in complete control. Mary essentially seals her own fate—but sees the fight as her triumph. Moggie conveys her impassioned impetuousness with aplomb but peaks too soon, so she’s shouting throughout most of the scene, giving Overbey’s controlled, wry Elizabeth the edge but leaving us wishing for more.
What we don’t get from Overbey is any sense that Elizabeth has a crisis of conscience about signing Mary’s death warrant. She seems concerned only with calculating the political consequences and is careful to distance herself from the decision by not telling inexperienced Secretary of State Davidon (Michael Joseph Michell) what to do with the signed document and punishing both him and Burleigh, who demands it from him, when the execution is carried out.
As for Mary, with whom Schiller obviously sympathizes, she gets to go to her death with dignity, happy that house steward Melvil (Clear) secretly hears her confession and gives her the last rites. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is left all alone—Talbot resigns, Leicester goes off to France—but bears up well, perhaps indicating that she’s not dependent on the opinions of men after all.
“Mary Stuart” plays out on Andromache Chalfant’s Brutalist set featuring a movable back wall that functions equally well as palace and prison, though the pool that opens in the meeting scene is more impediment than asset, even if it is meant to symbolize the gulf between the queens. Linda Cho’s costumes are designed more to suggest the period than to be totally accurate, and the satin gowns—royal purple for Elizabeth, deep green for Mary—make an indelible mark. Atmospheric lighting by Greg Hoffmann and Philip Rosenberg and sound design by Mikhail Fiskel and Miles Polaski round out a production that’s worth seeing even if it isn’t all it could be.