Friedrich Schiller never had a father's love and approval, and he was destined to write about that lack for his entire life.
The son's yearning for a close relationship with his father permeates Schiller's "Don Carlos." And it provides a steady pulse of feeling that transforms a play written in German in the 18th century, and set amid the politics and intrigue of the Spanish Inquisition, into something both intimate and universal.
Schiller was such a master of plot and pacing, the Shakespeare Theatre's production is so intelligent and the actors are so sensitive to psychological nuance that the show almost flies by. At a running time of 3 hours, 10 minutes, that's no minor accomplishment.
"Don Carlos," which Schiller based loosely on historical fact, tells the story of the ruling family of Spain in the mid-16th century. Phillip II is struggling to maintain Spain's sovereignty over the Netherlands while contending with suspicions that his wife is having an affair with her stepson, the crown prince.
Schiller's idol was Shakespeare, and "Don Carlos" has an inescapable and intentional resemblance to both "Hamlet" and "A Winter's Tale," from the opening in which a brooding young prince clad in black confesses his obsessive love for the woman married to his father, to later scenes in which an aging king doubts his young wife's fidelity.
But Schiller's plays resemble Shakespeare's only on the surface. Ultimately, "Don Carlos" is more a play of ideas than character.
Perhaps because his upbringing was so oppressive - as a teen, he spent eight years in a school where visits home weren't allowed, and where evidence of individual thinking was punished - the grown-up Schiller was consumed by the 18th-century ideal of romanticism and the triumph of individual liberties over tyranny, according to the play's translator, Robert David MacDonald.
A key scene in "Don Carlos" involves a lengthy philosophical debate between King Phillip and the Marquis of Posa, a scene impossible to imagine in Shakespeare's character-driven narratives.
In contrast, some of Shakespeare's plots can seem paltry, threadbare things when removed from the rich fabric of psychology and language in which he embedded them. Schiller's stories have a life of their own that sweeps up the audience in an implacable forward rush.
This production uses a translation by MacDonald written in iambic pentameter, and its chief accomplishment is the clarity it achieves despite the formal strictures. MacDonald creates a sense of ease within his 10-syllable metric lines by using modern idioms, and what the translation lacks in a certain lush richness, it may make up for in accessibility.
Set designer Ming Cho Lee and costume designer Robert Perdziola chose a spare, neutral palette that conveys the emotional barrenness of Phillip's palace while highlighting the character's raging emotions. Most actors are garbed from head to foot in black, save for a high white collar illuminating their faces like a spotlight.
The King, his family and courtiers wander from one empty gray room into another that looks just like it, and then into a third. In this atmosphere, rebellion gets confused with patriotism, and betrayal is mistaken for loyalty.
Schiller is too honest to make his alter ego in "Don Carlos" (the title character) particularly heroic or likable. As portrayed by Robert Sella, Carlos is all undisciplined, frenetic emotion and quivery, rabbity voice.
It's hard to blame Phillip for hesitating to hand over a politically volatile part of his kingdom to his unstable heir, and it's easy to understand why he sees in Carlos' friend Posa (Andrew Long) the independent-minded son he always longed for.
Phillip (Ted van Griethuysen) is too astute to miss the irony of the situation; he knows his neglect made a clinging child of his only son. During an attempt at a reconciliation, Carlos grabs Phillip's arm and practically slobbers all over it. The King clenches his muscles and, by a visible effort of will, resists his impulse to pull sharply away; his distaste for the boy is palpable.
For mysterious reasons, Schiller remains a rarity on U.S. stages. "Don Carlos" has a natural appeal for serious theatergoers eager to see unusual fare. But it also should attract a less experienced crowd that likes a good sword fight, but is intimidated by Elizabethan English.
Perhaps the Shakespeare Theatre's splendid production will introduce Schiller to the wider audience he deserves.
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. most Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. most Saturdays, Sundays. Through March 11.