Theater history can be a strange thing.
The relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England, was fraught with drama, intrigue, clashing armies and Mary’s ultimate date with the executioner. Those elements would appeal to any dramatist, especially those who speak and write English.
But to this day the only well-known play about the rival monarchs is “Mary Stuart,” written by German poet Friedrich Schiller and first performed in 1800. Being the good classicist that he was, Schiller wrote the drama using a five-act structure and didn’t worry about the possibility of numbing spectators’ hindquarters, because his characters really like to talk.
The play isn’t produced very often, although a 2005 production in London won acclaim and was re-staged on Broadway a few years later. That version was from a translation by Peter Oswald, which is what the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre is using for its production, which begins previews Thursday night.
Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, plays Mary and co-directs the show with Trevor Belt. She said she had no special interest in the play until she read about the Oswald version.
“The Schiller piece did not interest me and that’s partially because when I saw pictures of (older productions) it looked like a big old warhorse to me,” she said.
The London and New York productions, she said, had a spare look. The men were costumed in modern suits, while the women were costumed as monarchs.
“The point was that Mary and Elizabeth were actual queens,” Paisley said. “They weren’t queens because they married somebody. They stood there alone. There was no one else like them. And the men around them were pretty much men in suits.”
The rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth was rooted in religion. Mary was Catholic, Elizabeth, Protestant. But it was also about the pursuit of power and underpinned by complicated political maneuvering in England and Scotland. Elizabeth imprisoned Mary (in luxury and in various castles) for 19 years.
Mary had a legitimate claim to the English throne, but after Elizabeth survived an assassination attempt she believed Mary ordered, Mary was put on trial and beheaded in 1587.
Paisley said she and Belt have broken the play into a conventional two acts and decided the cast should perform without putting on English or Scottish dialects; to do so would simply be distracting, she said.
Playing Elizabeth is Cheryl Weaver, an accomplished actress who has performed previously at the MET in “The Seagull” and “Night of the Iguana.” Joining Weaver and Paisley are the “suits”: Robert Gibby Brand as Lord Burleigh, Alan Tilson as George Talbot and Bob Paisley as Dudley, Earl of Leicester.
The large cast also includes Andy Penn, Seth Jones, Cindy Siefers, Donovan Kidd, Kevin Albert, Andy Perkins, Jordan Fox and Chris Gleeson.
“I did the due diligence of reading Schiller in grad school,” Weaver said. “It’s a tough read — a very tough read. I have opinions about Schiller we could get into, but this new version is much more dynamic. It’s cleaner and it’s shorter.”
Weaver also has opinions about the two queens at the center of the drama. Given a choice, she’d play Elizabeth every time.
“I’m a huge fan of hers,” she said. “The Brits love her. All their best actresses have played Elizabeth. I like her and I think Americans do, too.… She had a very modern sensibility. She understood politics awfully well, and I think we appreciate that in this day and age.”
Despite their rivalry, Mary and Elizabeth were never in the same room together. Schiller ignored that inconvenient fact and invented a face-to-face encounter that Weaver said has become a standard event in the story as other writers have dramatized it for TV and movies.
“The centerpiece of the play is Act 3, when Mary and Elizabeth meet ‘accidentally’ in a forested area and can speak freely,” Weaver said. “It’s fabricated. They never actually met. But it’s fun because it’s two queens who really end up going after each other.… We can’t fathom that two women could be so close with so much hatred, always plotting, and yet they never laid eyes on each other.”