They're queens, but not of hearts

`Mary Stuart' a tale about power, deceit

April 10, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

German playwright Friedrich Schiller made a number of alterations to history in his great Shakespearean-style tragedy, Mary Stuart. Some of these - such as creating a scene between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, who never met in real life - heighten the dramatic stakes.

Others seem aimed at humanizing these historic protagonists, who are seen in a condensed view of Mary's last days. For example, by reducing the queens' ages along with the number of years between them, Schiller rendered the two monarchs more credible as romantic, as well as political, rivals.

Although there are strained moments in a few of the secondary performances at Center Stage, for the most part director Irene Lewis accentuates the humanizing aspects of Schiller's challenging, 200-year-old drama, making this history play both accessible and involving.

Much of the credit goes to the performances Lewis has elicited from lead actresses Brandy Zarle and Lise Bruneau, whose consummate portrayals emphasize the separate-but-equal qualities of the two royal cousins. Though they are apart most of the evening, Zarle's Mary and Bruneau's Elizabeth are clearly a match for each other. Each is intelligent, articulate and every inch a queen.

Emotionally, however, they are quite different. While Zarle's Mary is a firebrand, in terms of her romantic passions and her sense of outrage, Bruneau's Elizabeth is more circumspect and far less decisive. Ever defiant, Mary ends their climactic scene together by proclaiming: "I am your King!" The encounter hardens Elizabeth's resolve, but the notion of being responsible for Mary's death makes her so uneasy, it leads her to doubt her suitability for the throne.

Schiller gave the women something else in common as well. In another example of artistic license, both are in love with the Earl of Leicester. But though Francois Giroday's Leicester is every bit the slimy opportunist, his portrayal also makes the two-faced earl appear too spineless to earn the love of either of these self-possessed women. There are also some other off-notes. Tony Tsendeas, as a French ambassador trying to broker a marriage between France and England, veers toward comic caricature. And, in the invented role of Mortimer, a young hothead whose fervor for Mary's cause frightens even her, Chandler Williams is initially compelling, but his near-rape of Mary seems antithetical to his previously worshipful attitude.

Several key supporting performances shine, however, especially the depictions of two of Elizabeth's closest councilors - Sam Tsoutsouvas as chillingly calculating Lord Burleigh and, in contrast, Laurence O'Dwyer as frustrated, eminently fair-minded Earl of Shrewsbury. In addition, Michael Rudko delivers a beautifully layered performance as Mary's jailer, a complex character who both detests and respects his long-term prisoner.

The production's design is elegant - from Catherine Zuber's detailed period costumes and James E. Ingalls' lighting (hauntingly shining through the floorboards after Mary has been executed below), to Tony Straiges' multipurpose set, whose rear brick prison wall ascends to reveal a painted tapestry for the scenes at Westminster Palace, and a wall of ivy for the queens' al fresco meeting. (The fluid verse translation is by Robert David MacDonald.)

Mary Stuart may end with the death of the title character, but the dignity with which that character faces her fate suggests she has found a degree of freedom that, due to Elizabeth's role in the execution, will forever elude the surviving queen. Uneven though it may be at times, Center Stage's production offers insight into and empathy for both these women, and in so doing, makes their power struggle a moving tragedy for the victor as well as the vanquished.

Mary Stuart

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through May 4

Tickets: $10-$50

Call: 410-332-0033

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