Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Courtyard)


Schiller’s Mary Stuart

   At the Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater

               By Dan Zeff


Chicago—Recent reviews of “Mary Stuart” called the historical drama “electrifying” and “exciting.” The current revival at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater can be called literate, occasionally suspenseful, and even humorous at times. But electrifying and exciting? Not so much.

“Mary Stuart” was written by the great German dramatist Friedrich Schiller and first staged in 1800 as a five-act verse drama. The English author Peter Oswald has created a new version of the original that is more in tune with modern audience sensibilities. The play, which premiered in London in 2005, is formally titled “Schiller’s Mary Stuart,” though I’m unaware of any other plays of called “Mary Stuart” that could confuse the viewer.

“Mary Stuart” explores the hostile relationship between Mary, Queen of Scots and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Through a convoluted set of events, Mary came to believe that she was the rightful queen of England and Elizabeth had usurped her royal prerogative. The conflict was intensified by the fact that Elizabeth was a Protestant and Mary was a Roman Catholic, and those two main branches of Christianity in the West were at each other’s throats during the late 1500’s, the time frame of the play’s action.

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

As the play begins, Mary had been Elizabeth’s prisoner for several years, shut away in Fotheringhay Castle in central England. Mary is cut off from all contact wit the outside world, attended only by her faithful nurse, Hanna Kennedy. But Elizabeth still sees her as a threat to her throne and the peace of England. A loyal group of Catholics is ready to revolt against Elizabeth and install Mary on the throne.

In the play, Elizabeth is surrounded by a clutch of courtiers, each with his own agenda. Manipulation, betrayal, conspiracy, and deception hum through the court. The young Catholic nobleman Mortimer is a fanatical follower of Mary, indeed he is in love with her and plots to free her from her castle prison. Elizabeth’s cynical advisor Burleigh urges the queen to order Mary’s execution, the sooner the better, to eliminate this irritant to the throne. The Earl of Leicester is playing both sides of the royal street. The knight Amias Paulet is Mary’s appointed guardian and he takes his responsibility very seriously. The Earl of Shrewsbury counsels moderation and conciliation above all. Mix in a pair of visiting French aristocrats and the political pot is on the boil.

The first portion of the play centers on Mary, played with great intensity by K. K. Moggie. Mary rails against her imprisonment, longs for freedom, and cries out that she is innocent of any charges of treason leveled at her by her Protestant enemies. Elizabeth enters the action halfway through the play. Kellie Overbey’s queen is a cool, calculating figure, aware of all the political machinations that surround her. She sees herself as much a prisoner as Mary, her crown “a prison cell with jewels.” Elizabeth may rule her country but it’s very much a man’s world in the 16th century and the men at court would be happy to see their queen married and producing an heir instead of sitting on the throne. Not knowing who to trust, Elizabeth trusts nobody and lives unhappily in her isolation.

In real life, Elizabeth and Mary never met. Schiller includes a fictional meeting between the two that, at least in the CST production, is a letdown. The Earl of Leicester contrives to arrange a seeming impromptu meeting between the two women at the castle. The meeting does not go well. At first Mary pleads for mercy and is rebuffed by Elizabeth’s scorn. Mary then goes into a tirade, denouncing the queen as a bastard. Elizabeth leaves in a huff, the upshot being that Mary’s doom is sealed. The scene lasts only a few minutes (out of a production that runs almost three hours with one intermission). It is more shrill than trenchant and one feels that Shakespeare would have gotten more out of it.

As the history books report, Elizabeth finally signed Mary’s death warrant and the prisoner was beheaded in 1587. The wily queen shifted the blame for the execution order, framing an underling nobleman for the responsibility for Mary’s execution. The scene between the maneuvering Elizabeth and the panicked nobleman over how to interpret the death warrant is played for laughs at the CST, the neatest bit of dramatic black humor since Richard III wooed the Lady Anne over the casket of the husband Richard helped kill.

                   Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Overall, Mary is the more sympathetic of the two leading characters. She is allowed to walk to her death with touching dignity. Mary is a passionate woman and apparently doesn’t have a devious bone in her body, armed in the righteousness of her cause to become queen and her devotion to the church. Elizabeth is more calculating, as her political situation demands, more complex, with a more interesting personality with a wry sense of humor. But the playwright sides with Mary (after all, the play is called “Mary Stuart” and not “Mary and Elizabeth”).

      Moggie and Overbey both hold the stage well, but they didn’t come across as larger than life figures. The confrontation between the two royal personages is a missed opportunity to light up the stage with impressive dramatic and theatrical fireworks.

The first and longer part of the show is dominated by extended monologues and exchanges among the male characters. I got the feeling toward the end of the act that the men might be trying to talk Mary to death. But it’s stimulating, vigorous talk delivered very stylishly by Kevin Gudahl (Amias Paulet), Andrew Chown (Mortimer), David Studwell (Burleigh), Robert Jason Jackson (Talbot), and especially Tim Decker as the duplicitous Leicester.

There is also an emotional scene between Moggie and Patrick Clear as a priest hearing Mary’s final confession (the Catholics come off rather better in the play than the Protestants). And Michael Joseph Mitchell is both funny and tragic as the underling who Elizabeth saddles with the guilt for Mary’s execution while Elizabeth keeps her skirts clean, guiltwise. As the only other female in the play, Barbara Robertson is stirring as Mary’s protective nurse.

Jenn Thompson’s directing is unobtrusive but effective, allowing the skilled ensemble to speak Peter Oswald’s language with realistic fluency. Andromache Chalfant designed the minimalist set, with an open thrust stage and an unornamented movable rear wall. There is no pageantry in this staging.  Linda Cho’s costumes strive successfully for an Elizabethan look. Greg Hoffmann and Philip Rosenberg are the lighting designers and Mikhail Fiksel and Miles Polaski are the sound designers. Richard Jarvie designed the wigs and makeup, no small task in this historical drama.

“Schiller’s Mary Stuart” is a long sit and the subject may not have the fascination for CST patrons it would hold for British audiences. The Mary-Elizabeth conflict is one of the most romantic as well as historically significant relationships in British history but will mean less to American viewers unfamiliar with the plot’s backstory. Still, there is much to be said for a stage full of fine actors delivering so much rich dialogue with such conviction and intelligence.

The show gets a rating of

“Schiller’s Mary Stuart” runs through April 15 at the Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. Tickets are $48 to $88. Most performances are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, call 312 595 5600 or visit

March 2018

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