Schiller’s ‘Mary Stuart’: Royal feminist joust at the Folger

Aside from the costumes, this imaginative, behind-the-scenes Romantic-era play somehow feels a lot like 2015 Washington, D.C. The more things change....

Queen Elizabeth and advisors.
Queen Elizabeth (Holly Twyford) holds court, receiving counsel (l. to r.) from the Earl Of Leicester (Cody Nickell), Lord Burleigh (Rajesh Bose), and the Earl of Shrewsbury (Craig Wallace) in Mary Stuart. (Photo: Teresa Wood)

WASHINGTON, February 3, 2015 – One doesn’t often encounter performances of Friederich Schiller’s 1800 drama, “Mary Stuart,” at least in the U.S. First of all, the original was penned in German, so you need a decent translation for American audiences. Second of all, this is a talky play, generally more concerned with philosophy, politics and legal issues as it is with its pair of royal antagonists. And finally, it takes an uncommonly fine and sophisticated director and cast to pull it off.

Fortunately for DC-area audiences, the Folger Theater manages to pull off a hat-trick, transcending all three issues with a genuinely compelling—no, riveting—production of Schiller’s play that has you on the edge of your seat despite its often thorny and legalistic dialogue.

“Mary Stuart” is Schiller’s re-imagining of England’s Shakespeare-era battle of the queens: Queen Elizabeth I, the accepted Tudor Protestant heir to the English throne; and Mary Stuart, aka, Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s cousin and potential claimant to the same throne via her own Tudor blood. (Her paternal grandmother was the sister of Henry VIII.)

The colorful Catholic Mary was both Queen of Scotland and Queen Consort of France for a time. But her dubious (and possibly murderous) marital history and quarrelsome nature got her on the wrong side of the Scots, and she fled across the border to seek protection from her cousin.

Kennedy and Mary Stuart.
Hanna Kennedy (Nancy Robinette) is forced to say goodbye to Mary Stuart (Kate Eastwood Ellis). (Credit: Teresa Wood)

But Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned in fairly short order, a status she endured in various venues for some 19 years, until her cousin ordered her—more or less—to be executed on grounds that Mary had plotted to usurp the English throne.

Schiller sticks pretty close to history for the most part, save for the dramatic and deliciously vicious in-person confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary that crowns the story arc of the play. That incident never happened, of course. But Schiller’s historical revisionism is such a cracklingly tense theatrical moment it makes us wish it had really happened.

The rest of the play’s back and forth action alternates between the sumptuous court of Queen Elizabeth and the grim, stone walls of the castle keep that serves as Mary’s final prison. Both are vividly evoked by Tony Cisek’s solidly realistic sets. Costuming is reasonably period-authentic, thanks to the fine work of costume designer Mariah Hale, who particularly shines when outfitting the ladies.

Patrick Calhoun’s music and sound design is, at times, a bit heavy-handed, with clanging metallic sounds occasionally as loud as they might be in a superhero movie’s battle scenes, though such moments don’t last very long. Rob Denton’s lighting design is subtler, creating spots of furtively illuminated darkness that match the often somber mood of this play.

Peter Oswald’s English translation of the German original—used earlier this century in London and Broadway revivals of the play—is almost always deft, interesting, and devilishly clever, particularly in the thickets of legal reasoning that unfold early in the play. As tricky as this is, it’s pretty easy, particularly for Washingtonians, to narrate all these legal niceties, many of which are dropped into the Elizabethan spin cycle to guarantee Mary Stuart’s ultimate termination.

Nice, too, is this translation’s clear and interesting treatment of Elizabeth’s studied vacillations, clearly meant to encourage the execution of Mary while also providing the English monarch with what today we would call “plausible deniability” when it comes to pinning down exactly who was responsible for Mary’s death.

However, Oswald’s translation is also sickeningly obvious in the way it puts 21st century feminist dogma into the mouths of its female characters, particularly in Act I. Granted, the men in that historical era would certainly have been uncomfortable with a female monarch. (Thus, an oft-stated eagerness to marry the “Virgin Queen” off.)

But the way Elizabeth and Mary articulate their objections to this historical given in Oswald’s English version doesn’t track at all well with the genuinely authentic look and feel of the rest of the play. Fortunately, it’s ultimately just an irritating blip in an otherwise compelling translation.

As Elizabeth and Mary, Holly Twyford and Kate Eastwood Norris have the opportunity of a lifetime to exhibit their considerable thespian skills, and they do not disappoint.

Twyford’s mercurial Elizabeth is generally a model of royal restraint, although her frequent impatience with her advisors still flashes in her eyes while also telegraphed by her facial features, which occasionally tremble with the effort. Elizabeth, like her counselors, has gotten the political nuance of each sentence, each word, down to an exact, natural science.

As she, and they, match wits and maneuver for position, you can almost hear the echoes from the latest House or Senate hearings on Capitol Hill, where House and Senate committee members battle with witnesses in jousts generally characterized by a measured politeness and respect generally deployed to mask fury, condescension, and contempt for the other side.

It’s a startling effect, really, hearing it all from costumed characters, driving home the point, alas, that nothing much has changed behind government curtains for the last 400 years.

Twyford’s Elizabeth is not entirely comfortable with this. But it’s also clear she’s in it for the duration, ever the coldly stoical Protestant in the end. She’s long since decided she’s the rightful Queen when we meet her, and as such, she means to exert all the royal power she can bring to bear, squabbling, untrustworthy councilors or not.

Burleigh vs. Mary.
Mary (Kate Eastwood Norris) battles it out with Lord Burleigh (Rajesh Bose), her mortal enemy. (Credit: Teresa Wood)

Kate Norris’ Mary Stuart is in many ways Elizabeth’s equal and opposite. She shares Elizabeth’s pride and stubbornness. But, ironically, it’s her passionate and ultimately heretical flavor of Catholicism that colors her volatile personality. She views Elizabeth as a bastard and an interloper—technically correct under Catholic doctrine of the time—and sees herself as the true heir to the English and Scottish thrones, one who will unite both countries and banish the Protestant scourge forever.

Mary’s problem is that she’s purely emotionally driven, bending Church doctrine to accommodate her passions of the moment while ignoring the finer legal and political nuances that could strengthen her position. Unable to control her contempt for her cousin at precisely the wrong times, she effectively condemns herself.

Norris portrays her prickly character as a sympathetic woman doomed by her logical and emotional flaws and lack of self-control. Her Mary is a paradox, brittle but expansive, warm and loving, but literally murderous if thwarted.

Both actresses bring their characters quite thrillingly to life. But even better, they also use those characters to express the vast differences Schiller wanted to explore, the dichotomies of passion and reason, religious vs. secular, and Protestant vs. Catholic. It’s a heady brew and makes for an interesting night of theater indeed.

While the play belongs to Elizabeth and Mary, this production’s supporting cast is crucial to its success as well. Each of these players brings carefully crafted and calibrated characters into both Elizabeth’s glittering court and Mary’s fast-vanishing entourage.

Louis Butelli is terrific as Mary’s conflicted jail keeper, Sir Amias Paulet. Forced to play a dual role as Elizabeth’s devoted supporter while still according royal courtesy to the deposed Mary, Paulet walks a fine line he dares not overstep—a high wire act that Butelli performs crisply and believably, becoming one of the two most honorable characters in the entire drama.

Equally stalwart and honorable is Craig Wallace’s Earl of Shrewsbury. While generally opposing the wishes of Elizabeth and the moral stance of his counterparts, Shrewsbury takes great care with his address and his approach, always finding the moral high ground even as the earth continues to move beneath him. It’s a quiet, dignified performance.

At the opposite end are Cody Nickell as the duplicitous Earl of Leicester and Rajesh Bose as the cold-heartedly manipulative Lord Burleigh. Nickell’s Leicester is a dashing romantic hero, at least externally. But his sex appeal is considerably diminished by his inconstancy toward both the women he purports to serve. He’s a cad but a survivor, at least in the context of Schiller’s play. But we think less of him as the curtain falls than we did when we first meet his acquaintance.

In the tricky role of Burleigh, Rajesh Bose succeeds in two ways. His character is as close to a real, unambiguous villain as you’ll find in this play. But you have to admire his consistency and his doggedness as he pursues power not only for himself but to the end of decisively removing Mary forever, correctly gauging her as perhaps the most potent threat to Elizabeth’s monarchy.

In some ways even more impressive, however, is the way Bose rattles off his character’s vast, complex, and cleverly knotted legal arguments. Not only are these speeches almost certainly difficult to memorize. Tougher yet is the trick of delivering these arguments both convincingly and at a mind-numbing speed, all of which Bose pulls off. Better yet—you can actually follow him. It’s a notable performance.

Not quite so successful is Paul-Emile Cendron as the hot-headed Mortimer, the turncoat who would save Mary, slaughter Elizabeth, and perhaps even accompany Mary to the throne. Cendron’s portrayal of his youthful, impetuous, and ultimately rash character is a bit over the top. True, he’s the only young character in a play populated by stolid, middle-aged courtly pros. But Cendron seems to push his character a bit too much, and we tend to dislike him from the start—likely not the playwright’s intention.

Minor characters are nicely performed as well, particularly Nancy Robinette’s sympathetic and occasionally bathetic turn as Mary’s devoted nurse and lady-servant Hanna Kennedy.

This entire cauldron of royal intrigue, murder and power politics is directed with great care and attention to detail by Richard Clifford, who guides his performers in such a way that they reach the top of their game early and often.

In short, if you’re an avid playgoer who loves history, Shakespeare, government, politics, intrigue and all things royal and Elizabethan, you’ll want to get tickets to the Folger’s production of “Mary Stuart” ASAP. The Folger is not the biggest venue in town, seat wise, so if this is the way you roll, it’s best too call for tickets now to avoid disappointment.

A note on the Folger’s current exhibit:

Poster from Folger Spycraft exhibit.
An explanation of Alpha Coding, part of the Folger’s exhibit on Spycraft–an adjunct to the Folger Theatre’s current production of “Mary Stuart.” (Photo by Ponick)

And by the way—another thread in Schiller’s play is the role played by political espionage, otherwise known as spycraft. Contrary to what seems to be today’s popular opinion, this kind of skullduggery wasn’t invented by the CIA, the KGB or NSA. It’s always been part of politics both domestic and international, and the Elizabethans were masters of it.

To underline the point, the Folger has mounted a fascinating current exhibit in its Great Hall—directly adjacent to the theater—that explores ciphers, codes, codebreaking and secret messaging, tracing it from Elizabethan time to our own. It’s a fascinating adjunct to the current play and well worth seeing before the play, during intermission, or on your own during the library and museum’s regular visiting hours.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4)

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Peter Oswald’s contemporary English translation of Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart” continues at the Folger Theater through March 8, 2015.

Location: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C. Accessible to Metro’s Orange, Blue and Silver lines.

Tickets and information. Tickets run from $40-75. Call the Box Office at 202-544-7077 or visit the Folger’s website here. $40-$75. About 2 hours and 40 minutes.

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