Jenny Bacon plays the sensual Mary Stuart, deposed Queen of Scots, opposite Barbara Robertson as Elizabeth I, England's "Virgin Queen," in Mary Stuart at Court Theatre. Photo: Michael Brosilow
by Friedrich Schiller
Translated by Robert David MacDonald
September 6 - October 14, 2001
5535 S. Ellis
Friedrich Schiller's nineteenth century play, Mary Stuart, is neither a neo-Shakespearean history play nor a tragedy. Although the play chronicles the last three days and the beheading of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, who has been imprisoned for 18 years, it does not focus on issues of Tudor and Stuart succession to the throne of England or the hubris of the titular character. As written by Schiller, this play is a classical dialectic, with Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, and their followers, representing differing perspectives on almost every important idea. As translated by Robert David MacDonald, it is an intellectually challenging, even academic, playscript. Yet, as presented by Court Theatre and directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, Mary Stuart, comes alive. This an effective piece of theatre, appealing to the mind, the heart, and the spirit.
Schiller's classicism results in a play of absolute balance of plot and character. There are five acts, with the climax in Act III. In Act I, in 1587, in Fotheringhay Castle (near London), where Mary has been held prisoner since 1558, Mary learns of her death sentence; is given hope of an escape plot orchestrated by her jailor's nephew, Mortimer; and places her faith in the intercession of the Earl of Leicester, Mary's former lover and intimate friend of Elizabeth I. Act II switches to Westminster where Elizabeth's advisors discuss whether she should carry out Mary's death sentence; Mortimer and Leicester meet and formulate their plan to free Mary, which calls for Elizabeth to hire Mortimer as Mary's assassin and Leicester to persuade Elizabeth to meet with Mary; and Elizabeth consents to the meeting. In Act III, the two royal women meet in the park near Fotheringhay; they quarrel. After Elizabeth leaves, Mary is repulsed by Mortimer's romantic advances even though he may be her only savior. There is news of an assassination attempt against Elizabeth as she returns to Westminster. In Act IV, back at Westminster, Mortimer's plot is discovered; he kills himself. Leicester's duplicity is discovered; he lies his way out of it. Elizabeth signs the death warrant, after hearing arguments from her courtiers, the mob, and her own heart. In Act V, at Fotheringhay, Mary is prepared physically and emotionally and is led to her execution; at Westminster, Elizabeth tries to reopen the investigation after a witness recants his testimony against Mary, but it is too late. Leicester leaves for France; Elizabeth is left alone, as her supporters are either banished, imprisoned, or resign.
The symmetry of the plot is not the only balance in the play. Schiller's characters are presented as dialectics of important ideas. This classical ideal is most important in the characterization of the two Queens. Schiller explained this concept: "Elisabeth must be a person dramaturgically equal to Maria Stuart. This is in full accord with the balanced construction of the play, and demands a balanced interpretation. Elisabeth is, like Maria, a young queen who is not in control of her sensuality. She is not the virtuous virgin she would, perhaps, like to be, the exceptional woman above natural, sensual inclinations; on the contrary, she falls victim to these forces in very much the same way Maria does." Andreas Mielke, "Maria Stuart: Hermeneutical Problems of 'One' Tragedy with 'Two' Queens," Friedrich von Schiller and the Drama of Human Existence, edited by Alexej Ugrinsky. In order to emphasize the dramatic equality of the two Queens and to examine the effects of virtue and sensuality, and Catholicism and Protestantism, Schiller presents both women about a decade younger than they were: at the time of her death, Mary was 45 years old and Elizabeth was 54. The other characters also present the dialectical: Mary's genteel nurse, Jane Kennedy, contrasts to Mary Stuart's spirit of independence and queenly demeanor. Mortimer, the impetuous zealot and converted Catholic, is contrasted with the Earl of Leicester, the ultimate courtier and amoral weakling. Mortimer's uncle, Paulet, Mary's jailor, contrasts to the expedient Burleigh. The legalistic Shrewsbury, who resigns following the execution, contrasts with Davison, who is sent to the Tower because he is devoid of political savvy or morality.
Under JoAnne Akalaitis' direction, the Court Theatre's production of Mary Stuart is more than a study of classical balance, although Schiller's dramatic construction and his dialectics are faithfully adhered to. This production of the 19th century "history play" is never stodgy or simply academic. Every element of the production is intelligent and lively. The actors do not simply present Schiller's concepts, they embody them. They are not moldy figures from the history books, they are real.
From the beginning, Ora Jones is the genteel nurse Jane Kennedy who is more concerned with the trappings and demeanor and rules than her Queen.
Ernest Perry Jr., as Sir Amyas Paulet, is ever the man of honor who will not bend the rules even when importuned to make the execution easier by the unethical Lord Burleigh. Bradley Mott is wonderful as this morally compromised advisor to the Queen. Jesse J. Perez's performance as Mortimer is full of fire, energy, and the confusion of mixing his ardor and his politics. Christian Kohn, as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is a convincing love interest of both Queens. He exudes the charm of a courtier when he is with Elizabeth, but reveals the inherent moral emptiness that underlies that charm.
Jenny Bacon, as Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, and Barbara E. Robertson, as Elizabeth I, are superb. Ms. Bacon's portrayal of the much married, sensual, Catholic Queen is nicely nuanced. She is not simply the younger and more beautiful imprisoned Queen. There is more to Mary Stuart that Elizabeth should be wary of. In the beginning of the drama, she is a Queen bereft of the trappings of royalty. She seems powerless, but full of life. Act III begins with a lively dance with Jane Kennedy that displays her sensuality and spirit. During her Act III scene with Elizabeth, the audience witnesses her grow in stature as a Queen: she scornfully tells Elizabeth that she is a bastard who has defiled the throne of England. In this scene, Ms. Bacon begins speaking with a slight Scottish brogue and ends speaking with the cultured and modulated tone of a Queen. By the time she is being lead to her beheading, she has all of the trappings of royalty: her white robe over a red dress, her loyal followers, and Communion of a host blessed by the Pope.
Barbara E. Robertson's portrayal of Elizabeth I sets the standard for all of the other fine performances. Her virgin Queen is at once inexperienced and regally in control when her beloved Leicester baits her into visiting Mary Stuart in the park. She is the ultimate monarch when she seeks the advice of her court and after the beheading when she takes swift action against those who have not served her well. But at the end of the drama, she is devoid of the trappings of her royalty, she is without costume or wig or makeup. In the final scene, Ms. Robertson artfully conveys Elizabeth's victory -- she is still on the throne -- and her defeat -- she is alone.
JoAnne Akalaitis has directed the cast with an eye toward the dramatic and the lively. The movement between Schiller's symmetrical scenes is swift and imbues the action with a sense of inevitability. Some of the anachronistic theatrical "bits" are clever, amusing, and elevate the play from the history textbooks to the immediate and the universal: the Diet Coke scene when Elizabeth and advisors are debating whether a death warrant should issue. Gordana Svilar's off-center, raked set is fantastic in its versatility, which allows it to be Mary Stuart's prison, with file cabinet drawers holding her belongings, Westminster castle anti-chamber, a park, a battleground. The set also presents the royal family tree at all times during the action, inscribed on the floor and the walls. The set is complimented by Jaymi Lee Smith's lighting, which is especially effective in the wash of royal colors on the upstage "velvet" wall and the initial projections. Kaye Voyce's costumes are simultaneously whimsical, functional, modern, funky, and historical. They perfectly reflect the message of the drama. Finally, the original music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman perfectly evokes Scotland, and England, the past, and the here and now.
--Sandra Marie Lee
Mary Stuart. Friedrich Schiller's drama about the regal rivalry between England's Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472. Through October 14: Wednesdays-Thursdays, :30 PM; Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 3 and 8 PM; Sundays,
2:30 and 7:30 PM; Sunday, October 14, 2:30 and 8 PM. $28-$40.