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Mary Stuart

Queen vs. Queen: A Study
in Politics and Leadership

By Friedrich Schiller (adapted by Peter Oswald)
Washington Shakespeare Company, Artisphere Black Box Theater, Arlington, Va.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Directed by Colin Hovde

Amazing how a play written in 1800 about events (albeit fictionalized) that took place 230 years earlier can have insightful resonance for audiences 210 years after its composition. This tale of England's first Queen Elizabeth's deadly political struggle with Mary, Queen of Scots, comments on power versus leadership, politics versus personality, individual ambition versus national interest, and judicial expediency versus international implications that so aptly apply to what's happening these very days across the river. The only difference is that today, nobody literally loses his or her head; only figuratively.

Schiller supposedly wrote his play as sympathetic to Mary, but that didn't seem to be the conviction of this production. While she may have been innocent of the exact charge upon which she was beheaded, Mary was, nonetheless, a person of supreme self-interest with a passive-aggressive style of scheming. Sweet she may have been, but she had a history of causing trouble. On the other hand, Elizabeth held all the cards and was clearly a schemer and bully; yet, she of the two queens grappled most with the question of moral justice and the implications on her people and nation. Though the victor in the struggle, Elizabeth came across as more the victim.

This may have been due as much to the acting of the two principals as to Colin Hovde's direction. Heather Haney's Mary was all soft and coy, in flowing dresses and shawls, a woman of passion (religious and sexual) and stoicism, except for the scene of her meeting with Elizabeth. Then she let loose with a tirade that she exulted over afterward but that came across as snippiness. Sara Barker's Elizabeth was all hard and contained, in business suit and tightly wound hair, a woman of control (political and sexual) and stature, except for that meeting with Mary when she seemed timid and fearful. The only time these two actresses had difficulty conveying consistency in character was when they were on stage together, which may have been intentional.

Although the cast wasn't as deep as we've seen in other companies, some of the players accomplished noteworthy portrayals. Joe Brack was a cad of a Leicester, stylishly dressed and coiffed, talking and moving with a swagger intended to charm the two women but ultimately getting trumped by both queens who were fighting over much more than his penis. Lee Liebeskind played Burleigh as something of a bully, but his respect for the position of the person occupying his nation's throne was his rock-solid foundation. For Burleigh, Elizabeth was the queen and nothing less, and Mary was a threat to national security and nothing more. Chris Mancusi played Paulet in whose castle Mary was kept prisoner, and he turned what could have been little more than a plot-driver role into a nuanced character, despising Mary but doing all in his power to keep her secure, despising his duty as warden but doing all in his power to ensure that Mary got due process of the law.

The bare-set production used wooden chairs as the only props: the actors paraded with them, created sound effects with them, and created trees with them. They became the scaffold on which Mary climbed to her execution and the steps on which Elizabeth descended from her dais. I'm not sure of the thematic significance (a tilting chair is even on the program's cover): the throne, maybe, as this play was running in repertoire with Richard III. But even if the image wasn't entirely clear, its application was effectively clever.

Eric Minton
November 30, 2010

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