'Mary Stuart': Brilliant emotion obscured by staging

The ACT Theatre's production of Schiller's "Mary Stuart" is one of its best in years, but many of its powerful emotional intricacies are lost on an audience seated in the round.

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Suzanne Bouchard as Elizabeth Tudor and Anne Allgood as Mary Stuart, in Mary Stuart at ACT

The ACT Theatre's production of Schiller's "Mary Stuart" is one of its best in years, but many of its powerful emotional intricacies are lost on an audience seated in the round.

There are certain plays that should not be staged in the round and Mary Stuart is one of them. This searing depiction of the last days of Mary, Queen of Scots, is a brilliant blend of histrionics and internal torture on the part of both Mary and her archrival, Elizabeth I, and although the loudest scenes resonate throughout ACT’s Allen Theater, the subtleties of emotion, which propel much of the power of the play, are lost when the actors are facing another direction.

Anne Allgood as Mary and Suzanne Bouchard as Elizabeth give their roles an authority and elegance befitting the two queens. Both are among our finest local actors and, when you can see their faces, the complexities of their characters and their responses to their situations are overwhelming. I was fortunate to be sitting along the aisle that serves as the staircase to Mary’s execution platform and, in her final scene, as Allgood ascended, bathed in golden light with eyes toward heaven, the combination of pain, resignation, and exaltation on her face was almost too powerful to bear. As much as I had appreciated the intensity of Allgood’s performance up to that point, that final scene suggested just how much I might have missed at other pivotal points, when all I could see was the back of her head.

The same was true for Bouchard. In the scene where she asks for counsel from her ministers about whether to condemn Mary or not, Bouchard was seated facing away from my section of the theater. The only hint I had of the emotion her face must have been expressing was a slight movement in Bouchard’s head. How much more effective the scene would have been, had I been able to see what I am sure was her pained expression as she weighed her unappealing options. Like Allgood, Bouchard was facing in my direction in the play’s closing moment as Elizabeth silently registers the personal toll her decision to execute Mary has taken and, as did Allgood, Bouchard showed me in a flash what I had been missing earlier on.

Even with these problems of staging, Mary Stuart is one of the strongest productions ACT has staged in a long time. It’s not a perfect play — there are some scenes, including an aborted rape of Mary by one of her followers — that are jarring and unnecessary, but, as a whole, this dramatization provides new insights into arguably the most storied rivalry in history. It is important to remember that Friedrich Schiller’s play, newly adapted by Peter Oswald, is not historically accurate in every detail. But Schiller has created an emotional truth that makes both Mary and Elizabeth very real and very tragic.

The question of which is the more tragic in the historical event is continually argued in academic circles, but Schiller comes down squarely on the side of Mary, as the play’s title suggests. Mary’s scenes with her faithful handmaiden Hannah, her jailer Sir Amias Paulet, and her steward/confessor Melvil are heartbreaking as she vacillates between desperation and passionate defense of her innocence; her confrontation with the stone-faced Elizabeth is a tour de force of supplication turned to fury.

With few exceptions, the Elizabeth of Mary Stuart is a vain and capricious monarch, more concerned with what the world will think of her if she executes Mary than consumed by her own inner doubt. This is one area in which the Schiller play misrepresents the range of the real Elizabeth’s qualms. Although Elizabeth was genuinely and rightfully concerned about the political consequences of an execution, she was equally disturbed by the idea of killing a queen. In Elizabethan times, the notion of the divine right of kings — which asserts that a king is subject to no earthly authority, but only to the will of God — was deeply entrenched. Elizabeth felt that by countenancing the murder of another monarch, she was not only acting against the will of God, but opening herself to justifiable assassination.

This minor defect in the play is easily overlooked given how tightly written it is. Although the main focus is on Mary and Elizabeth, the cast of supporting characters is equally compelling and equally well acted. Allen Fitzpatrick does a masterful turn as the Earl of Shrewsbury, imploring Elizabeth to act humanely and with constraint. He is dignified and restrained even in his condemnation of Elizabeth’s final decision and, along with Allan Michael Barlow as Mary’s guardian Paulet, provides one of the few voices of reason in this highly-charged environment. Barlow’s Paulet is genteel and righteous, respectful of the status of both queens and determined to do his duty as Mary’s protector as long as she is in his custody. Peter Crook’s Lord Burleigh is gnarly and bloodthirsty and R. Hamilton Wright does a facile job keeping us guessing about where Leicester’s loyalty truly lies. Also noteworthy is Marianne Owen as Mary’s nurse and confidante Hannah, a stalwart under pressure, even as she accompanies Mary to her death.

The minimalistic set — just a few benches, a small throne-like chair and a table — work surprisingly well, as does the combination of dress. Mary and Elizabeth are costumed in the style of their day, while the other characters are in modern all-black: Suits for the men, a nondescript dress for Hannah. The contemporary clothes are so basic, they seem to disappear as a theatrical element, allowing Mary and Elizabeth to stand out even more in this dreary landscape. Lighting designer ML Geiger creates an evocative blend of light and shadow, highlighting actors’ faces at critical moments. The lighting as Mary climbs to her death is especially effective, suggesting simultaneously her ascension from dungeon to daylight and earth to heaven.

The only change I would make in this production is to switch Allgood and Bouchard. Bouchard’s fragile beauty and younger appearance are more suited to Mary’s reputation as a femme fatale and the fact that she was 9 years younger than Elizabeth and Allgood’s imposing presence more in keeping with the powerful persona that Elizabeth was reported to project, especially in her later years. Still, Allgood and Bouchard are such fine actors it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine both of them in either role.

If you go: Mary Stuart, ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, through October 9. Tickets $37.50-55, students and under 25 $15-20, Pay-What-You-Can day of show every performance at the box office, by phone 206-292-7676 or online www.acttheatre.org.


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