“Mary Stuart” is the new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s classic play “Maria Stuart”, adapted and translated by English playwright, Peter Oswald, which opened at ACT Theatre on Thursday night. “Mary Stuart” takes place in three days and portrays the various reactions to Mary’s death sentence, passed by the House of Lords, after the Babington Plot, when a Catholic tried to rescue Mary from her 19-year captivity in England and put Mary on the throne. In order to heighten the drama, Schiller inserted a fictitious meeting between the Queen of England, Elizabeth, and Mary, the deposed Queen of Scotland, which demonstrated, how very foolish and ill-equipped she was to play the high-stakes game of political intrigue in Renaissance Europe, and how well-equipped Elizabeth was to do it.
The strength of this production was in the outstanding acting by an all-Seattle cast. Vocally this play was incredibly challenging, with an intricate witty script and high dramatic tension. The situation offered almost no comic relief, but the script did. Suzanne Bouchard, as Elizabeth I, was particularly effective as a beautiful queen who used the text not only to entertain, but also to seduce a roomful of advisors-who were totally convincing as 20th century upper class “senior civil servants”. Strong performances were delivered by R. Hamilton Wright as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, one-time “favorite” of Queen Elizabeth, Allan Michael Barlow as Amias Paulet, Mary’s jailor, Peter Cook as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, an advisor and Allen Fitzpatrick, as George Talbot.
The casting of Anne Allgood as Mary and Suzanne Bouchard as Elizabeth was a little odd, as there are references in the text that Mary is younger than Elizabeth, yet Allgood looked older. In history, Elizabeth was 56 but looked about 30 in this production, Mary was 42, but looked at least 50. Allgood’s performance was generally good, and generally she was able to rise to the vocal challenges, but at times she was screechy and the scene when she receives the last rites from a lay-man, were maudlin and difficult to watch. However, the scene and monologue when she is about to go to her execution were done well.
The accents of the courtiers and Elizabeth were spot-on English accents; however the French Ambassador’s accent was not identifiably French and wavered between Italian, Spanish and Russian. The particular intonation pattern of French was absent. The choice to use a mild Scottish accent for Mary’s former house steward, played by Terry Edward Moore, was fine per se, but if he spoke with a Scots accent, why did Mary’s nurse and companion, Hanna Kennedy speak with an English accent?
The play itself is very heavy on exposition; initially the production was made dramatic by the powerful performance of Allan Michael Barlow as Mary’s jailor, but then fell into a tedious recounting of past events by Kennedy and Mary. For those of us who know this period of history (presumably there are those who do not) it was boring, and could have used some action on stage. Another flaw in the play is that a lot of the dramatic action (such as an attempted assassination of Elizabeth), takes place off-stage and then is recounted on-stage. As a result of the temporal focus of the play; most of the events which created the situation had already happened, and were recounted.
The weakness of the production was in the directing, especially in the costuming, and in the stage itself. So little action happened on stage, this production could just as easily been a radio play. ACT’s Allen Theatre is in-the-round, which is not disastrous per se; however this in-the-round space has no barrier between the stage and the first row of the audience, so that in viewing the play, the audience is too visible, which was distracting. The director, Victor Pappas, imitated the London production by costuming the courtiers in non-descript black and grey 20th Century suits, but Mary and Elizabeth in stunning Renaissance costumes (designed by Frances Kenny) In a country known for prime wool and expert tailoring, the courtiers were in 2-piece badly cut undertaker suits. Traditionally, those people wear three-piece well-tailored suits with pocket watches. Luckily the actor’s performances were so imposing that the audience was convinced despite the bad choices in costuming. The soldiers in guards were in 19th Century military costumes.
In the press release Pappas, says that he chose costumes from different periods to “fuel the immediate attention to the now” In my opinion, it just seemed silly. Why if a courtier is dressed in a modern day costume, does he get down on his knee and more or less genuflect to the monarch, as they did in Renaissance times? Why do people in 19th Century costumes pull out swords and have a sword fight? Since all the courtiers were white late middle-aged men, having them all in the same color made it difficult, for the audience, to distinguish the characters. It seems that if the director really wanted to “fuel the immediate attention to the now” he should have committed to that and used some creativity by possibly updating the play to be Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton facing Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman. The “now” contains politicized religious issues just as much as Renaissance England.
Pappas chose to mix periods in the music as well, by using both Renaissance and modern music, but not enough of it. The lack of a set, lack of music or a spectacle undermined the authority of Elizabeth. Too often on stage the actors were just recounting, recounting, recounting without independent activities e.g., Mary Stuart spent a lot of time embroidering, and presumably did not stand up all the time while in captivity. The choices the director made were too safe and bland, and a more interesting use of set, music and blocking could have added a lot to this production
Although I somehow missed reading Schiller while getting my degree in German, the language flowed “trippingly from tongue” and did not seem stilted except when the courtiers addressed Queen Elizabeth as “Queen” rather than “Your Majesty”. There is a direct correct translation from the German “Ihre Majestät” to “Your Majesty” Addressing her as “Queen” sounded unrealistic and certainly was not necessary to make it flow better in English.
However, having said all that, this is a superb production and vocally, even after all my years in the U.K., it is streaks above anything I have ever seen or heard. See it by all means.
“Mary Stuart” by Friedrich Schiller, adapted by Peter Oswald, directed by Victor Pappas, Tues, Thurs 7:30 pm; Fri& Sat. 8:00 pm; Sat & Sun 2:00; Sun 7:00 pm. ACT Theatre (in the Allen Theatre) 700 Union Street, Seattle, www.acttheatre.org