3 Stars out of 4
Elizabeth The First is one of the most fascinating persons in history, and the fact that she was an unmarried woman ruling one of the most powerful nations of her time makes her among the most compelling characters of the Western world. So many aspects of her circumstances and life were unlikely. But she was not alone in her time: her cousin Mary Stuart, whose story was more conventional since she married and bore a son, was also a powerful,daring ruler. The lengthy chess-like game of life and death between the two queens and their followers is the heart of Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 drama Mary Stuart, which also became the libretto for Donizetti’s no less famous opera. Peter Oswald’s 2007 translation of the drama, now on view at Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theatre, is a deep dive into the conundrum of the choices a powerful ruler faces when one’s own family is the biggest threat to your power-- a topic on the front page of the paper frequently these days. Director Jenn Thompson chooses to highlight the humanity of the relationship of the two queens, set against the all male power structure that supports and thwarts these strong willed women. It is a dangerous game they play, and it leaves one of them dead.
Mary Stuart, daughter of King James V of Scotland, and grand daughter, as is Elizabeth, of King Henry VII. Stuart is briefly Queen Consort of France before marrying her second husband: first cousin Henry, Lord Darnley.The marriage was unhappy and it is generally believed that she allowed him to be assassinated by James, Earl of Bothwell whom she then married--perhaps under duress. Her Scottish subjects rose up against the couple, so Mary abdicated her throne to her infant son James, and she fled to what she thought would be asylum with her cousin to the south, Elizabeth The First. Instead of finding a sympathetic sister queen, Mary was put under a virtual house arrest for years. Mary Stuart, born to the throne, married to a king, mother of the prince who would succeed the childless Elizabeth, was left in an impossible position for years. Advisors to Elizabeth generally agreed that Catholics saw Mary as the rightful ruler of England, since the Vatican never recognized Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. As long as Mary was alive, she was a threat to Elizabeth’s legitimacy as ruler. But Elizabeth recognized that her blood cousin Mary was an anointed Queen, and to execute another Queen would also make Elizabeth’s own head less safe.
Kellie Overbey’s Elizabeth is a woman unafraid to use her female arts of flirtation and petulance to manipulate the men around her. She is exceptionally shrewd, beneath a batted eyelash act. Elizabeth was a cold hearted survivor. When she finally meets Mary, a completely fictional proposition since the women never laid eyes on one another, she is at a loss: she has never encountered a female who is her equal before. K.K. Moggie’s Mary Stuart is a passionate, regal queen, who fails to understand until too late how her impulses have gotten her into this dire spot. She is never faltering in her belief of the righteousness of her cause. She was born to be a Queen and she stays one even unto the scaffold.
These two women are like suns sucking the gravitational pull away from the myriad courtiers conniving and maneuvering about them. Barbara Robertson, as Mary’s nurse Hanna, the only other woman on stage, must represent all of the women, servants, courtiers, witnesses, in this male dominated universe. This can be an uncomfortable work to watch, because it is based on a true and horrible story which is fit onto a harsh and beautiful stage with an evocative set by Andromache Chalfant. Linda Cho’s architectural costumes evoke the era and showcase the characters.
Schiller’s Mary Stuart is a powerful play. Though it drags a bit after the fateful fictional meeting, and it is clearly a work created in another era where people regularly spent long evenings at the theatre, and though we know the inevitable conclusion, watching these two strong women spar is a moving evening that tickles the intellect. Sinking your mind and your time into a showcase for female actors is a distinct joy.
Schiller’s Mary Stuart is running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Courtyard on Navy Pier Tuesdays through Sundays until April 15, 2018.For tickets and information go to www.ChicagoShakes.com or call 312-596-5600.Or go to https://www.theatreinchicago.com/mary-stuart/9636/