Why did Queen Elizabeth kill Mary Stuart and why should anyone care?
Although some might think they could care less about a political execution that happened in the 1500s, “Mary Stuart,” the fall mainstage play, makes a 200-year-old play about people who have been dead for 400 years gripping and relevant.
The play, artfully directed by theatre professor Neil Blackadder, tells the story of cousin queens, Elizabeth I of England (junior Kate LaRose) and Mary Queen of Scots — the Mary Stuart of the title (sophomore Grace Moran). The English court has proclaimed Mary guilty of conspiring against Elizabeth and claims she organized multiple attempts to overthrow and assassinate Elizabeth.
When the play opens, Mary has been in captivity for almost 20 years and the people of England are putting pressure on Elizabeth to cut off her rival’s head. Also pressuring Elizabeth to make the decision are her three advisors, Lord Burliegh (senior Chris Bakka), the Earl of Shrewsbury (sophomore Jon Hewelt) and the Earl of Leicester (senior Isaac Miller) who disagree on the right course of action.
The play is not the original “Mary Stuart” performed in 1800, but a new translation by Peter Oswald. Although the play is longer than some dramas, the action moves along at a quick enough clip to keep audiences interested without moving too quickly and leaving the audience in the dust.
Despite the play’s long history, it is not difficult to relate to its characters. The political pressure on Queen Elizabeth as she chooses between public opinion and doing what she feels she must do is not foreign to anyone who has held any sort of great responsibility and Mary’s struggle to come to terms with herself and her situation while she’s caught between hope and fear has not become irrelevant.
The major players all perform their roles admirably. Moran’s Mary is a woman beaten down by years of imprisonment, but not broken. Without overplaying the role of a martyr, she culls the audience’s favor through the complex and sympathetic Mary.
Mary has a worthy rival in Elizabeth. Although the play sides with Mary, The Virgin Queen never becomes a complete villain. LaRose’s Elizabeth is a woman torn between fear for her reputation and fear for her life. Even when the audience cannot approve of her actions, they can understand her motivation.
The technical aspects of the play are also a triumph. The set, designed by Associate Profesor of Theatre Craig Choma, is simple — shallow red steps lead up to floor-to-ceiling yellow panels of various widths interspersed across the stage — but these minimalistic trappings become a dim prison, a queen’s palace and a green wood in the mind of the viewer.
Although many performances benefit from elaborate sets, this play’s stripped down set avoids Elizabethan trimmings and reminds the audience that the political conflicts happening onstage could happen anywhere at any time.
The play’s costumes, designed by senior Katie O’Connor with assistance from the theatre department’s costume supervisor Margo Shively, help enforce this idea. Although Elizabeth and Mary’s servants are dressed in period gowns, the men and women of the court are dressed in modern business attire. These dressings serve a dual purpose, also contrasting the queens from their subjects.
The gowns in this play are amazing. Both Mary and Elizabeth have multiple costumes and each gown is unique and beautiful. Most impressive is the evolution of Mary’s costume throughout the play, which changes with her moods.
In the first scene, she wears a strikingly structured dress with a black bodice, which reflects her dark state of mind in the prison. Later, when she glimpses a chance at freedom, she wears an airy white gown. In her final scenes, when Mary has accepted her fate, she wears a simple red dress to meet her death, as red traditionally represents martyrdom.
Although “Mary Stuart” is a historical play, it takes liberties with some facts to increase the play’s drama and more fully explore its characters. Although the queens never met in real life, one of the play’s most dramatic scenes comes when the two finally see each other face to face. The play also creates two new players in the lives of the queens: Mary’s nurse, Hanna Kennedy (junior Alyssa Kennamer) and the brash young Mortimer (sophomore Neil Phelps).
Although sticklers for history might complain about these additions, these fictional characters enhance the play, especially in the character of Mortimer. Mortimer is a concrete characterization of the kind of spiritual and emotional zeal that prompted some of England’s citizens to be willing to die for Mary and, at the same time, he embodies the pitfalls of this kind of fervor.
One weakness of the play is that of the ages of characters, which range from young to old but with the limited casting available to the director of a college productions (namely college students between the ages of 18 and 22) it is impossible to actually have actors that fit most of these characters. It is impossible to tell how old a character is, until someone else mentions it.
In “Mary Stuart,” the age of the character affects everything from their politics to their goals to their worldview. It would have been wonderful to see the actors who so unaffectedly implied the difference between royal and common also embody the gulf between their ages.
Despite this small quibble, “Mary Stuart” is strong overall.
Why did Queen Elizabeth kill Mary Stuart and why should anyone care? The answer to the first question is wrapped in the story of “Mary Stuart,” but the answer to the second is as clear as day. The confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth is compelling political drama with depth, great characters and meaning that extends from the past into the lives of modern viewers.