Fine acting and brilliant staging are bringing a museum-piece drama to life in the Pioneer Theatre Company’s ongoing production of Mary Stuart.
The play focuses on the fatal climax of a 20-year rivalry between two royal cousins – Queen Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots – over who would sit on the throne of England. Their dispute was fueled by both national and religious conflicts, but ultimately was a battle of wills between the two dominant female figures of the Elizabethan era who are memorably portrayed by Anne Bates as Elizabeth and Erika LaVonn as Mary.
Under the deft direction of Shelley Butler, the performances of those equity actresses are a study in contrasts. As Elizabeth, Ms. Bates’ portrayal is peppered with towering fits of temper that are more often than not calculated for their effect on her advisors. Ms. LaVonn delivers a more sympathetic portrayal of Mary as a person motivated by genuine emotions.
The drama clearly illustrates that both queens were surrounded by a collection of scoundrels motivated by their own ambitions rather than their sovereign’s best interests.
Chief among those plotters is Robert Mammana as Elizabeth’s paramour the Earl of Leicester; Robert Scott Smith as the influential royal counselor William Cecil; and Jamen Nanthakumar, as the would-be traitor Edward Mortimer. All of those equity actors provide convincingly nuanced performances.
Equity actress Colleen Baum delivers an equally outstanding portrayal (and an authentic-sounding Scottish accent) as Hannah, a handmaid to Mary.
Backstage artistry also contributes heavily to the atmosphere of Mary Stuart.
From our perspective on this side of the English and French revolutions, the idea that regicide might be considered the ultimate taboo seems quaint, but the issue was hotly debated in the English court in the late 1580s.
While the dramatic airing of those conflicting arguments gives Mary Stuart the flavor of a courtroom drama, its setting is contrastingly claustrophobic. Sara Ryung Clement’s set design brilliantly conveys the idea that Elizabeth and Mary are both prisoners, with Mary trapped within the walls of her cell and Elizabeth confined by the politics and sexual perceptions of her era.
The sumptuous costume designs by Brenda Van Der Weil meanwhile recapture the elegance of the Elizabethan age despite that stark background.
The most surprising thing about this production is its relevancy. Its source material is the biographical drama Mary Stuart written by German philosopher Fredrich Schiller in 1800, which highlighted the struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism in Elizabethan England. This version of that play was adapted by Jean Stock Goldstone and John Reich in 1957, emphasizing personal intrigue as the trigger of Mary’s execution. Nowadays, Mary Stuart still seems to be full of eerie echoes of our current political crises. You can almost hear the voices of modern pundits and media talking heads in the self-serving opinions of Elizabeth’s courtiers.
The only weakness in this production comes from the audience’s side of the footlights. Unfortunately, the significance of the backstory of Mary Stuart – the War of the Roses and the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties in England – is completely lost on most modern American theater-goers. What a pity!
On the other hand, it is difficult to think of a more appropriate production than Mary Stuart for 2020, which is being hailed as the Year of the Woman.