Through March 8
201 East Capitol Street, SE
The decades-long rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart is surely one of England’s most enthralling power struggles. You can’t make this stuff up. And though German playwright Friedrich Schiller embellished the truth in his drama “Mary Stuart” (1800), most of the astonishing plot points stick pretty close to history.
And now Folger Theatre is retelling the tale of the doomed queen with Peter Oswald’s sharp and celebrated new translation of Schiller’s more flowery work. Helmed by esteemed director Richard Clifford (the longtime partner of actor Sir Derek Jacobi), the production is both a compelling and handsomely realized historical drama. At almost three hours, it’s on the long side, but its many scenes are undeniably taut and build with suspense.
Once the Queen of Scotland, Mary Stuart (Kate Eastwood Norris) is now held under glum house arrest by her cousin and captor England’s powerful Queen Elizabeth I (Holly Twyford). While imprisoned, Catholic Mary, who has a reasonable claim to the English throne, becomes popular with anti-Elizabeth zealots. Meanwhile, a jury of protestant peers wants her dead, but Elizabeth is uncertain.
Mary’s history of intrigue and involvement with the murder of her first husband is real, yet Schiller portrays her as fully redeemed, almost beatific. Mary’s goodness may be a Schiller invention, but it’s effective. While the audience knows which queen loses her head, we sometimes want the outcome to be different.
Other inventions include a crucial scene in which Elizabeth and Mary meet (in life, they never met). The sovereign and prisoner have now slid into middle age. A meeting might satisfy Elizabeth’s curiosity concerning what remains of her cousin’s fabled beauty. For Mary it’s a chance to appeal for mercy. But once a queen always a queen it seems; after some halfhearted attempts at humility, Mary seizes her moment to speak truth to power. She triumphs but also seals her fate.
And Schiller portrays Elizabeth’s favorite, a dashing and calculating Earl of Leicester (the excellent Cody Nickell) as being involved in a love triangle with the queen and Mary. It’s sheer poetic invention.
Though susceptible to courtier’s flattery, Twyford’s Elizabeth remains wily and circumspect on the big issues. Her youth was rife with insecurities. As Anne Boleyn’s daughter, she was considered a bastard and her right to the throne was disputed. Norris’ Mary is more emotional. She’s likely to follow her heart and act on impulse.
Twyford, who is gay, and Norris are surrounded by an outstanding cast including Nancy Robinette as feisty Hanna Kennedy, Mary’s longtime attendant. And Ray Dooley doubles as a dandified French diplomat and Mary’s loyal servant Melvil. Rajesh Bose plays protestant hardliner Lord Burleigh, and Craig Wallace is aging the Earl of Shrewsbury, Elizabeth’s sensible and compassionate advisor. Louis Butelli is Mary’s stern but law abiding jailer Sir Amias Paulet, and Paul-Emile Cendron plays his fanatical nephew Mortimer (another Schiller invention) who comes to Mary’s aid. Todd Scofield is perfect as Davison, Elizabeth’s understandably flummoxed secretary.
Out designer Tony Cisek’s set morphs easily from Mary’s dark, dank quarters to the glittering grandeur of Elizabeth’s throne room. And later a misty wood, the more neutral location of Schiller’s imagined meeting of the queens. The set fits cunningly into Folger’s intimate space, one with which Cisek is very familiar.
Mariah Hale limits her period costumes to black and white. Mary’s simple black dress doesn’t disguise her regal bearing. Elizabeth wears the trappings of Renaissance power and wealth: ruffled collars, weighty gowns and zillions of pearls. And Leicester stomps around the palace in high black leather boots.
In “Mary Stuart,” Schiller puts his interest in power on full display. As Mary draws closer to death, she transcends her prison walls, heading off to execution fully resplendent; whereas the duties of Elizabeth’s reign are portrayed as increasingly burdensome. Being queen is never easy.