Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Queens of the Stage

Mary Stuart
Written by Friedrich Schiller; adapted by Peter Oswald

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Starring Janet McTeer, Harriet Walter, Michael Countryman, John Benjamin Hickey, Michael Rudko, Robert Stanton, Maria Tucci, Chandler Williams, Nicholas Woodeson, Brian Murray

Performances began March 30, 2009
Broadhurst Theater

235 West 44th Street

Walter and McTeer in
Mary Stuart
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Like Shakespeare in his history plays, Friedrich Schiller wrote Mary Stuart with a willful disregard for the facts. But who cares if his dramatization of the fatal religious friction between cousins Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots is filled with invented dialogue and scenes? The play is an intellectually-charged battle of wits between two opposing monarchs, and Schiller’s heightened verse raises their conflict to a tragedy of epic proportions.

Of course, onstage verse--when not Shakespeare‘s--doesn’t do too well with today’s audiences, so the adaptation of Mary Stuart currently on Broadway is Peter Oswald’s prose. Judicious in its trimming, prudent in its transferring the language to accessible prose, Oswald’s is an eminently playable version; it puts across Schiller’s unsettling portrait of a society shaken by political and religious differences without needless updating to show its contemporary relevance.

Phyllida Lloyd’s excellent production also emphasizes the real women behind the thrones, especially the jailed Mary, who is Schiller’s most sympathetic character and a tragically ill-used heroine. Elizabeth is shown both in her glory as triumphant queen and behind the scenes, where she is reluctant to decide Mary’s fate: she knows there will be consequences whether Mary lives or dies a martyr.

Played against set designer Anthony Ward’s painted-black brick wall--on which startling shadows are thrown by Hugh Vanstone’s superlative lighting design--Mary Stuart is breathlessly paced like a thriller, especially in the scenes featuring the plot to free Mary by Mortimer (a character invented by Schiller), who poses as Elizabeth’s pawn but is really Mary‘s faithful disciple.

John Benjamin Hickey imbues the shady but charming Leicester--Elizabeth’s current and Mary’s former flame--with the required ambiguity, while Chandler Williams’ Mortimer is filled with youthful vitality that appeals to both women, and Nicholas Woodeson makes Burleigh, Elizabeth’s most trusted, steadfast loyalist, into a positively Cheneyesque figure. Also in a cast of nuanced and estimable actors are Brian Murray, Michael Countryman and Maria Tucci.

But this is the two queens’ show, thanks to our lead actresses’ towering performances. While Harriet Walter’s delicious Elizabeth has a steely exterior masking a quite vulnerable ruler. Janet McTeer’s Mary is a simply wondrous creation, allowing us to care for her as a real woman first, which is the only way we can feel for her as a wronged queen.

In Lloyd’s grandest coup de theatre, Mary revels in a rainstorm that‘s not in the original play but enhances Schiller’s notion that her brief time outside her cell is her lone moment of freedom. This short-lived exhilaration ends when Mary meets Elizabeth in a deft scene of mutual ruthlessness that Schiller brilliantly invented, allowing our regal actresses the opportunity to play off each other for a brief moment that makes a lasting impression.

originally posted on

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