A pair of queens that's hard to beat

By Martin F. Kohn

Think of "Mary Stuart" as the history play Shakespeare could never write. It takes place in England in 1587; all of its characters are Shakespeare's contemporaries, including Queen Elizabeth, the villain of the piece and as the play amply illustrates, it's never a good idea to tick off the queen.

The closest Shakespeare ever got to writing about events of his own era was "Henry VIII," about Queen Elizabeth's dad, and Shakespeare had the good sense to be born after Henry died and to write the play years after Elizabeth's death.

It was left to the German playwright and historian Friedrich Schiller to dramatize in 1800 the story of Elizabeth and her unfortunate cousin and rival for the throne, Mary, Queen of Scots.

As is the case with many of Shakespeare's plays, the history in "Mary Stuart" is complex, which is a euphemism for "difficult to follow without a scorecard," but the human drama requires no explanation at all. Boiled down, the basic situation is easily understood: Protestant Elizabeth has locked up Catholic Mary, accusing Mary of conspiring to overthrow Elizabeth. The question is, will Elizabeth go one step further and have Mary executed?

But wait, there's more. Intrigue, jealousy, guilt, denial, lust, conscience, betrayal, remorse, obedience, rebellion, treachery, politics, duty, diplomacy, culture clashes, power struggles, religious differences, shifting loyalties and, what the hell, feminism are all in play.

In this Meadow Brook Theatre production, director Travis W. Walter and his able cast make things as clear as they possibly can.

Mary and Elizabeth couldn't be more different. Imprisoned Mary (Julia Glander) dresses like a nun, speaks with a consistent, never overdone Scottish accent and bears herself with subtle but natural regality. Enthroned Elizabeth (Ruth Crawford) dresses royally, speaks with the imperiousness of Margaret Thatcher (or at least Meryl Streep playing Thatcher in "The Iron Lady") and visibly acts as if trying to convince herself that she deserves the throne (this is a compliment).

It doesn't help that Mary and Elizabeth refer to each other as "sister," even though they are cousins. This caused some confused murmurs in the audience. As long as he was revising, Peter Oswald, credited with this new version of Schiller's play, could have cleared that up.

And, as is often the case with Shakespeare, the secondary characters (they are many) can be difficult to tell apart: the Earl of this, Lord that, a couple of counts, and so forth. Wisely, Walter has cast excellent actors who also look very different, among them Loren Bass as shifty seducer the Earl of Leicester; the considerably taller Mark Rademacher as the kindly, soft-spoken Earl of Shrewsbury; wiry Thomas D. Mahard as the gruff Lord Burleigh. Paul Riopelle conveys the conscientiousness, and conscience, of the nobleman who serves as Mary's jailer; and Jordan Whalen is full of idealism and commitment as Mary's would-be savior.

Liz Moore's costumes delight the eye, and scenic designer and technical director Brian Kessler, lighting designer Reid Johnson and sound designer Mike Duncan provide a well-crafted effect that begins the second act and, at least on opening night, drew appreciative applause.


'Mary Stuart'

Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through March 4. $30-39. 248-370-3316. http://www.mbtheatre.com

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