What does a 200-year-old literary classic have to do with the chaos of the US Congress today?
A lot, according to Jason Loewith, Olney Theatre Center’s Artistic Director, who has adapted Friedrich Schiller’s soaring drama to reflect the politics of our time.
Certainly, this version of Mary Stuart, which opened at Olney’s black box theater last weekend, is as brash a portrait of political intrigue as any dominating the headlines right now.
Based on the struggle between two strong-willed women—Elizabeth, the Protestant daughter of Henry VIII, and Mary, the Catholic granddaughter of Henry VII—the play is a riff on the use and abuse of power.
It is particularly timely as it looks at the ways in which political expediency, or Realpolitik, can trump morality. But while Loewith sees the clash in terms of gender, it is also a duel borne of rivalry—over men and religion—which locks the women onto opposite sides.
And what a duel it is! There are fireworks on this modest stage, tossed by a handful of actors who nearly all play multiple roles. In one guise or another, they plot and prowl under lights that threaten to explode.
Megan Anderson is superb as Elizabeth, delivering as powerful a performance as any I’ve seen.
Striding back and forth on the stage, dressed like a corporate executive in a stunning pantsuit with pearls, she recalls a leonine Katharine Hepburn. (In an ironic twist, Hepburn, in the 1936 film, actually played Mary, though in a manner quite different from the one depicted here.)
Derided by Catholics as a bastard because of her father’s divorce, Elizabeth nevertheless boasts of her upbringing. Her education, she points out, is that of a king. She is ravishingly sure of herself and of all that she does.
One of the best moments in the play comes when she lists her accomplishments, then dashes offstage to a piano where she pounds out what seems to be a Mozart sonata. (In fact, it’s an original piece, composed by Matthew M. Nielson, the sound designer.)
In this respect, Elizabeth is one up on Mary, whose upbringing prepared her for seduction and marriage. (In fact, she was the wife of three different kings, two of whom died early deaths.)
But while Mary is jeered as a slut and a whore, it is Elizabeth—the so-called “Virgin Queen”—who is the sexual aggressor. Full of lusty exuberance, she literally thrusts herself onto the lap of Leicester, who, despite being her favorite suitor, is annoyed at not being named a king.
Leicester is played with theatrical wizardry by Chris Genebach, who alternates in the role of Paulet, Mary’s reluctant jailor. So complete is the transformation—effected with nothing more than the whisking on of a pair of spectacles or the removal of a ruff—that it took me a while to realize that it was actually the same actor playing both roles.
Similarly, it did not dawn on me until I glanced at the program that Hannah, Mary’s devoted lady in waiting, was Elizabeth under a servant’s cap. Both actors—Anderson and Genebach—glide so effortlessly into their secondary roles that it was like watching a class in improv.
Paul Morella gives a masterly and profoundly stirring performance as Burleigh, a good and honorable man who tries to offer the best advice and do the right thing
Mitchell Hébert—in a bit of what may be inadvertent type-casting—is once again God-like in the roles of Shrewsbury and Melville. Last seen as the Hebrew God in Oh God at Mosaic, here he inhabits the twin roles of a God-fearing Christian and a God-loving priest.
Despite these powerful performances, Mary Stuart has its flaws. Whether through misdirection or miscasting, two of the leading characters seem oddly portrayed.
Mary (Eleasha Gamble), who should be the hero of her story, seems curiously weak. Except for one crucial scene—the long-sought-after meeting with her rival—she seems beaten down, with little sense of the royal bearing or divine entitlement that should go with the role. While Gamble is clearly a gifted actor, her interpretation of the role is unconvincing.
The portrayal of Mortimer is equally odd. Jake Ryan Lozano is a bit over-the-top as the duplicitous plotter. He is almost feral, and seems more like a moody adolescent than a would-be traitor.
Loewith, who adapted the play, also directed it, condensing the original into a fairly compact two-act drama and reframing it for a spare theater-in-the-round presentation.
The basic set is ingenious. Designed by Loewith with Richard Ouellette, it consists of a rotating plexiglass platform, allowing the actors to be seen and heard from every corner of the 150-seat house. Directly above the platform, perfectly mirroring it, is a roof of lights on pulleys, used to dazzling effect by designer Colin K. Bills.
Ivania Stack’s costumes speak volumes. She uses props as a kind of shorthand, evoking peasants and courtiers with devices as simple as medals and capes or as dazzling as make-up and wigs.
Mary’s costume, like her portrayal, is puzzling. While most productions have her dressed in the wardrobe of a queen, here she is dressed as a penitent, wearing a large cross over a peasant-like blouse. Clearly, this is deliberate. She is a prisoner. But her jail is nevertheless a castle.
Schiller was a 41-year-old German poet and former medical doctor when Mary Stuart was first performed, to great acclaim, in 1800. It is considered his masterpiece.
Despite its flaws, this Mary Stuart is, overall, a remarkable production, and a must-see in terms of its evocation of human drama and the price of triumph.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
There will be post-show discussions with members of the cast following the Saturday matinee performances on May 18 and 25, June 1 and 8.
Lisa Nathans, dialect coach; Casey Kaleba, fight choreographer; Karen Currie, production stage manager