Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I meet in Court productionBy Seth Sanders
While Shakespeares histories revolve around kings and powerful men, German playwright Friedrich Schillers acknowledged masterpiece centers on a battle between two queens: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. The Court Theatres new production of Mary Stuart (now playing through Sunday, Oct. 14) demonstrate[s] the no less ferocious dynamics at work in a female power struggle in the mid-16th century, wrote Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss.
Schillers genius here, according to the director, JoAnne Akalaitis, is that he has two of the most brilliant women in history meet, an event which did not happen in history. But this imagined meeting elicits performances from Jenny Bacon (Mary Stuart) and Barbara Robertson (Elizabeth) described by Weiss as scorching.
In the play, powerful religious and political forces come together in the characters of the two queens. Due to their shared Tudor blood, each had a rightful claim to the British crown, but the Protestant Elizabeth was the one who held power, as Englands Virgin Queen. After fleeing to England from France and Scotland, the Catholic Mary Stuart expected her cousins protection but was instead thrown in jail for 19 years. While imprisoned, she was the focus of Catholic hopes and plots against the crown. For this, she was tried for conspiracy and beheaded in 1587.
The play is set during the last days of Mary Stuarts life and depicts both Elizabeths soul-searching and Marys personal transformation in the face of death. As Antonia Frasier wrote in Mary Queen of Scots, It was Marys triumph that by her deliberate behavior in the last months of her existence, she managed to convert a life story, which had hitherto shown all the elements of a Greek tragedydisaster leading ineluctably to disasterinto something which ended instead in the classic Christian manner of martyrdom and triumph through death.
Clark Gilpin, Professor in the Divinity School and the College, who is writing a book on religious letters and speeches from prison in England during this time, said that Very often the letter from prison or the speech on the scaffold is presented as a moment of absolute truth. And in the closing scenes of Mary Stuart you get that: as she sets aside her own anger and prepares herself to meet death, shes the only composed person onstage. Gilpin added, The person who is about to die has nothing to gain by saying anything other than the truth; this is particularly true if the principal concern is not how things are going to turn out on earth but in eternity, so theres a double presumption of truth.
Schillers play and his real historical models provide powerful material for the director and actors, all rooted in Chicago. Akalaitis, a graduate of the University, said, Elizabeth and Mary are emotional, demanding, possessive. They are noble and royal creatures, but at the same time, they are more like modern, powerful, neurotic women. [They] hunted with bows and arrows. They danced until midnight. Mary wandered the streets of Edinburgh dressed as a man. Elizabeth made sure that the two queens never met. She was very smart to avoid a meeting, for whatever political or emotional reasons. You do not want to meet your rival/worst enemy. When you are in power, there is no need for negotiation.
Weiss wrote that the situations allowed the actors and supporting cast to draw on a wide and deep range of emotions: Robertson, Resident Artist at Court Theatre, gives Judi Dench (who played Elizabeth in the popular film Shakespeare in Love) a real run for her money as the familiar bewigged, mask-like face of the Virgin Queen finally gives way to the haggard, blood-drained vulnerability of the real woman beneath. Bacon, a graduate of the University Laboratory Schools whose career began in Chicago theater, was described by Weiss as a great beauty who embodies a breathtaking blend of the self-dramatizing and the severe, the physical and the otherworldly. She wrote that this intensity is set off by a few, perfectly measured post-modern winks, including the anachronistic snap of Coke cans at moments of high tension and sudden freeze-frame bits of action that make the audience complicit in the melodrama.
Mary Stuart runs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., through Sunday, Oct. 14. For tickets and information, call the Court Theatre Box Office, (773) 753-4472.