Two queens were one too many in the fearfully dis-united kingdom of 16th century Britain. One, Elizabeth, had decided to return her country to the Protestantism her father Henry VIII had imposed on it. The other, Mary, favored the Catholicism that had reigned before Henry and still prevailed in most of the rest of Europe — including France, where she’d lived since childhood, safe from England’s wrenching back-and-forth religious wars, which left thousands dead with each shift of the political/religious winds.
Rampant beheadings, massacres and purges in the name of seemingly minor doctrinal differences, terrorism… if all this sounds familiar, it’s because humans are depressingly slow to change our ways. Playwright Peter Oswald understands these parallels, and his adaptation of the great 19th century German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s fictionalized version of the battle between the dueling queens crackles with contemporary vitality, which director Elizabeth Huffman channels into the most powerful theater production I’ve seen this year: Cygnet Productions and Northwest Classical Theatre’s Mary Stuart.
Though his play garnered multiple Tony Award nominations in 2009, Oswald is British, so Americans may need a bit of a primer or refresher, even beyond the tiny-print program provided, to understand what’s at stake in this deadly duet. As it is, the forced exposition that brings us up to speed gets the play off to a lumbering start, as characters explain historical context to each other that they already doubtlessly know, but that the audience needs to understand. After you read what you need to know here on ArtsWatch, you’ll be fully equipped to enjoy it — and you should.
Mary was literally born trouble, arriving on earth less than a week after the English killed her father, King James V of Scotland, in battle, which convinced her French mother to raise the infant heir to the Scottish crown in France. She grew up speaking French, composing poetry, playing music, dancing, and embroidering, then marrying the teenage heir to France’s throne. But her reign as Queen of France lasted only two years, whereupon her young husband died. One of the great beauties of the age, Mary returned to Scotland at age 19 to claim her throne there, commencing a brief but turbulent reign that involved the murder of her second husband, suspicion of her involvement in it, her marriage to the murderer, his exile, and finally her deposal by the Protestants.
Instead of returning to France, in 1568, Mary sought sanctuary in England, hoping her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, would shelter her and help her reclaim at least one of her crowns — another choice as rash and foolish as those that had doomed Mary’s short reign. Elizabeth’s position was shaky, her own legitimacy questioned because her father, King Henry, had disinherited her after executing her mother, Anne Boleyn. Already the object of assassination attempts and struggling to contain (sometimes brutally) a simmering counter-revolution by resentful Catholics, she had little interest in harboring a potential rival. But rather than risking sparking a civil war by killing her cousin (much loved by the unrepentant Catholics), or giving her a foreign base from which to plot a takeover, Elizabeth kept her friends close and her enemies closer, “sheltering” Mary by placing her under, essentially, house arrest — for 19 years. It wouldn’t be the first or last time the Virgin Queen would survive by deftly avoiding what seemed an inevitable either/or choice.
That’s where we find Mary when the play opens still steaming with resentment over her ill treatment by a cousin whom she’d never met and who now occupied a throne Mary regarded as rightfully hers. She wants her freedom — and her power— restored, and she uses her beauty and personality to enlist powerful men to help her get them.
As incandescently played here by veteran Portland actor Luisa Sermol (who uses a historically appropriate Scottish-tinged French accent that somehow comes out sounding vaguely Spanish), you can certainly understand both how Mary lost her power, and why some of England’s most powerful men want to help her get it back. Passionate, fiery, she’s irresistible to the Earl of Leicester (who’s just been spurned by Elizabeth, whom he also loves, in one of her many maneuvers to protect her reign and country by dangling the prospect of marriage, in this case to the King of France), and to an ardent (and fictional) young Catholic sympathizer, Mortimer, brilliantly played here by the energetic young British actor Phillip Whiteman. Apparently representing the many Englishmen unreconciled to the Reformation, he delivers a persuasive monologue (accompanied by appropriate video projections) about the glories of Catholic art and its relation to religious ecstasy that delineates a major difference between it and the more austere Protestantism.
Mary’s— and her church’s — attractiveness also explain why even more powerful nobles and advisers to Elizabeth, led by Lord Burleigh (smartly and sympathetically played by Gary Powell) want her out of the way. The play begins just after Mary has been implicated (possibly falsely) in a notorious plot against Elizabeth and the country’s de facto ruling council of nobles has voted to recommend a death sentence.
Elizabeth (grippingly portrayed by Lorraine Bahr), who’s maintained power by flirting with whoever she needed to, and assiduously avoiding decisions (whom to marry, what to do with her troublesome cousin, what country to ally England with, etc.) and taking sides, now confronts a choice: carry out the council’s decision and possibly ignite the incendiary unreformed Catholics to rebel, or refuse to do so, antagonizing England’s ruling elite, including Parliament, and leaving her rival alive, a permanent invitation to rebellion. Oswald’s play dramatizes the irreconcilable conflict between Elizabeth’s desire to maintain her monarchy with Mary’s longing for freedom. And only one of the two queens has the power to decide.
The temptation to dramatize the collision of queenly ambitions led Schiller (and therefore Oswald) to imagine that their confrontation happened in person, although there’s no evidence they ever actually met. The second act’s climactic meeting, which occurs in a garden near the manor where Mary’s imprisoned while Elizabeth is ostensibly off on a hunt, offers one of the most electrifying duets I’ve seen on an Oregon stage. Bahr and Sermol’s volatile chemistry provides an ideal medium for the explosive meeting of these two fully realized characters, whose personalities differ as much as their politics. In the dangerous 16th century England, with four deadly regime changes in a few decades, the way to survive was to hedge your bets. And Elizabeth’s canny, cold calculation, disguised beneath a mask of frivolous flirtatiousness, ultimately proved better adapted to survival than Mary’s visceral, ultimately unrestrainable passion. We can see Elizabeth’s nervous imperiousness flare along with Mary’s long-stifled resentment (vividly portrayed by Sermol), even when she knows that Elizabeth holds her life — literally, in the form of that death warrant — in her hands. Her silent, tongue-biting reactions are as compelling as many actors’ declamations.
As if more fuel were needed for this queenly conflagration, Oswald adds another insecurity to Elizabeth: she’s long wondered whether Mary is as beautiful as everyone claims, and therefore more desirable than Elizabeth herself — no small matter when Elizabeth’s desirability constitutes a big part of her negotiating power with other powerful figures. Jealousy joins fear and power-hunger among Elizabeth’s motivations. The heat intensifies as an assassination plot unfolds. This can’t end well, and the fact that many audience members already know how this bloody tale turned out, nor its nearly three-hour length, in no way vitiates the tension that Huffman and her company masterfully maintain. Ultimately, the play suggests, the queen who lives doesn’t necessarily “win” over the one who dies, and Sermol and Bahr make those unlikely transitions utterly believable, and feel utterly right.
While primary credit goes to the two leads, Mary Stuart also benefits from a mostly terrific ensemble cast, led by Powell and Whiteman, with David Bodin also especially effective in the smaller role of Amias Paulet, whose manor became Mary’s prison, and Anthony Green as Elizabeth’s trembling undersecretary, Davison, whom she maneuvers into taking the blame after another of her agile duckings of responsibility — what the Cold War CIA bureaucrats called “plausible deniability.” The sizzling three-way scene with Elizabeth, Davison, and Powell toward the end of the play is one of the tautest I’ve seen in years. As always, Elizabeth decides by seeming not to decide, while Mary chances a choice — and, as ever, chooses unwisely, before attaining a degree of wisdom at last.
Despite the script’s early and late lapses, Huffman’s fluid direction of this high powered action keeps the tension high (including one prop mishap seamlessly covered by the actors in the performance I saw) on the intimate thrust stage in southeast Portland’s 38-seat Shoebox Theatre. The costuming — with the queens in sumptuous period attire that contrasts sharply with the rest of the cast’s self effacing modern business suits — reinforces society’s image of the royal women as celebrity archetypes, with the others merely acting in their own self interest — the 16th century equivalent of venal corporate moguls, the king making, amoral Koch brothers of their time. Janet Trygstad’s occasional period-style choreography adds dimension, and although I found the occasional video projections hit and miss, the music — a surprisingly successful fusion of Renaissance and modern sounds composed/arranged by Portland’s reigning masters of early music, Phil and Gayle Neuman, with complementary sound design by Sharath Patel —contributes to the authentic feel, despite the paucity of props and scenic design elements that wouldn’t fit this Shoebox. (My companion, less accustomed to today’s pervasive wallpaper music, found the underscoring distracting during Elizabeth’s climactic monologue.) This smart, powerfully realized production reminds us that creative direction and design can do more than expensive costume dramas to conjure a believable enough world in audiences’ minds.
But all that and the rest of the play, whose unnecessarily drawn out final act feels anticlimactic, is eclipsed by the unforgettable tense encounter between the two queens, both larger than life, and death. Even though it really should be titled Mary and Elizabeth, NWCT/Cygnet’s Mary Stuart offers a memorable theatrical dance with death. Two queens might have been too much for England then, but they’re a perfect pair for Portland theater lovers now.
Cygnet Productions and Northwest Classical Theatre’s Mary Stuart runs through March 29 at Portland’s Shoebox Theatre, 2110 SE 10th. Tickets are available online www.nwctc.org.