Two queens. One rules England, though her claim to the throne is sketchy at best. Another is imprisoned in a gilded cage with the threat of the axe looming over here, but still harboring hopes for freedom and the English throne. The two engage in a private war fought mostly by proxy in which only one queen can survive. This is Mary Stuart, an adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s play by Peter Oswald and playing at the Joslyn Castle under the auspices of the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company.
Schiller’s play is a nifty historical thriller. He clearly had great understanding of the history of this particular period of the Tudors as well as great insight into human nature as his play touches on lust, betrayal, conspiracy, Machiavellism, and ambition run amok. The story is completely dialogue driven, but every conversation and monologue builds to a climax of its own which serves to keep the audience’s attention glued to the tale. Peter Oswald has updated the language to be more understandable to a modern audience yet still retain the feel of Schiller’s original story.
Lara Marsh provides an exceptionally strong bit of direction to this story. Her actors never let the pace drag in the talky production, not by speaking faster, but by closing the spaces between their words, letting the dialogue retain its meaning. Ms Marsh understands every jot and tittle of the play, expertly guiding her actors through the story’s numerous climaxes and resolutions, coaching her players to extremely realistic performances which was rendered more difficult with the audience up so close and personal to the performers, and making full use of the tiny performance space with impeccable staging.
There wasn’t a weak link in the large cast (beautifully costumed by Wesley Pourier), but there were several standouts in supporting roles. These included MaryBeth Adams as Mary Stuart’s loyal and feisty servant, Hanna Kennedy; Steve Denenberg and Adam Hogston as Amias Paulet and George Talbot, who are the only court members truly concerned with Queen Elizabeth I’s welfare; and Eric Grant-Leanna as Davision, a nervous and befuddled new appointee to the court who falls victim to Elizabeth’s machinations.
Delaney Driscoll brings power and regality to the role of Mary Stuart. Although she’s been imprisoned for the last quarter century, Ms Driscoll’s Mary Stuart is still every inch a queen. It’s an astonishingly multifaceted performance as Ms Driscoll gracefully glides between being assured in her royalty in an early confrontation with Lord Burleigh (played by John Hatcher), to softer, gentler moments with Hanna, to being desperate and vindictive when she finally meets Elizabeth I, to a calm, but firm assurance of her right to rule England and her standing before God when she makes her final confession.
Charleen Willoughby’s take on Elizabeth I is almost the flip side of Mary Stuart. Where Stuart is full of confidence and certainty in her right to be England’s queen, Ms Willoughby’s Elizabeth is plagued with self-doubt and insecurity. Knowing that her right to rule is tainted by her illegitimate birth, Ms Willoughby’s Elizabeth is determined to overcome that taint by being the perfect queen. That drive for perfection actually prevents her from taking decisive action and she is constantly seeking the counsel of her court.
But take care as Ms Willoughby’s Elizabeth is not as weak and willowy as she likes to pretend. She does hold her own strong opinions and is not afraid to stick to her guns. She is also very adept at manipulating situations to accomplish her darker whims while salving her conscience.
Eddie McGonigal plays Mortimer, the play’s lone fictitious character. Mortimer is a traitor to the English throne and spearheads a rescue operation to liberate Mary Stuart and get her the English crown. McGonigal’s performance is sensational as his Mortimer is so loaded with arrogance, it’s practically seeping out of his pores If that isn’t bad enough, Mortimer’s grip on sanity is tenuous at best as he fancies himself an avenging angel doing God’s will in saving Mary Stuart. He also lusts for a sexual relationship with the Queen of Scots culminating in a near rape of her at the end of Act I.
Few actors bring the type of naturalness John Hatcher brings to a role. As William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, Hatcher always sounds extemporaneous, doubly impressive given the heinousness of his character. Hatcher’s precise inflection choices beautifully animate his subtly bloodthirsty character with just the right touches of anger, manipulation, and snide pride. Lord Burleigh wants Mary Stuart dead at all costs to solidify his power base with Elizabeth I and will do anything to make it happen such as softly cajoling Elizabeth into signing the death warrant for the good of England or gently putting the screws to Paulet to let an assassin reach Mary Stuart. It is one of the night’s most mesmerizing performances.
You would think that Lord Burleigh would be the story’s primary villain, but I believe that (dis)honor goes to David Mainelli’s portrayal of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. I consider Mainelli’s performance to be his one of his finest due to the difficulty of this character. Where Burleigh is open and up front with his villainy, Maninelli’s Dudley is a despicable, slimy worm working from the shadows.
Machiavelli is put to shame with Dudley’s machinations. He loves power so much that he dumped his fiancée, Mary Stuart, because he thought he could do better and began wooing Elizabeth I. Then he gets involved in the rescue operation of Mary Stuart because he still loves her and then turns on her when the rescue fails and his own survival is at stake. In all of his oiliness, Mainelli manages to give Dudley a small kernel of decency with his regret at betraying Mary Stuart and finally makes a noble sacrifice to expiate his guilt.
Nearly every character in this play has an ulterior motive. Elizabeth I needs to remove Mary Stuart to legitimize her claim to the throne. Mary Stuart needs her freedom to usurp the throne from Elizabeth I. Robert Dudley needs to increase his power base by any means necessary. Mortimer wants to save Mary Stuart to be her lover. Lord Burleigh wants to maintain his own power base and keep England separate from its enemies (all other countries in his mind). These motives make these characters utterly hateful, but also make for a most compelling night of theatre as well.
Mary Stuart will play at the Joslyn Castle under the auspices of the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company from May 4-25. Showtimes are Wed-Fri at 7:30pm. There will be one Saturday performance at 7:30pm on May 6 and no performance on Friday, May 5. Tickets cost $25 ($20 for students/seniors/military). For tickets, please call the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company at 402-502-4910 or visit www.bsbtheatre.com. The Joslyn Castle is located at 3902 Davenport St in Omaha, NE.