The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of “Mary Stuart” is long and talky, but the production admirably explicates a dense, complex script thanks to performances that are memorable for their clarity.
Working from Peter Oswald's translation of the Friedrich Schiller original, the MET reorganizes the five-act piece into two long acts — about 90 minutes in Act 1, more than 100 minutes after intermission. Sounds daunting, I know. But this is an absorbing production.
Karen Paisley, the MET's artistic director, plays the title role and co-directs with Trevor Belt. They've populated the stage with good actors who get a lot from the material. Ultimately the show creates a moving portrait of self-acceptance in an age when being on the losing side of a power struggle meant you could literally lose your head.
The play dramatizes the relationship between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. They were cousins who approached power from opposite sides of the dividing line between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Mary, the Catholic, 19 years earlier fled Scotland to seek protection from Elizabeth, who responded by imprisoning her. Elizabeth's advisers warn their queen that the threat of a Catholic uprising will exist as long as Mary lives. Ultimately the Scottish queen, who has a legitimate claim to the English throne, is tried for an assassination attempt on Elizabeth's life and found guilty — although the play depicts her conviction as a frame-up.
The dramatic tension in the piece has to do with a simple question: Will Elizabeth sign Mary's death warrant or not?
With minimal sets and a costume design that puts most of the men in suits and the queens in elaborate dresses befitting a monarch, the show works on a cerebral level while drawing us into what becomes an intensely emotional conflict.
Karen Paisley does some of her best work in a performance that suffers when the character becomes too opaque. For the most part, however, we clearly see the volatile emotions storming inside her — a mix of rage, self-pity and profound sadness.
Cheryl Weaver impresses as Elizabeth, here rendered a maddeningly indecisive monarch easily influenced by her rogue’s gallery of advisers. The contrast between Elizabeth's public face and her private insecurities is one of the more entertaining aspects of the show.
A fictional encounter between the two queens provides the most histrionic fireworks of the evening. It's a virtual festival of resentments, accusations and recriminations, and Weaver and Paisley don’t hold back. The sound design overlays the scene with rumbling thunder which unfortunately renders some lines unintelligible.
The production benefits from some exceptional supporting performances: Robert Gibby Brand as Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth's chief adviser who lobbies incessantly for Mary to be sent to the chopping block; Seth Jones as young Sir Mortimer, who presents one face to Mary and another to Elizabeth; Alan Tilson as the fair-minded Earl of Shrewsbury, a senior voice of reason; and Bob Paisley as the Earl of Leicester, a skilled double-talker who is romantically linked to each queen. Allow me to say that Paisley seems to have upped his game for this show.
Nice work is also registered by Andy Penn as Sir Amias Paulet, Mary’s honest but reluctant warden, and Cindy Siefers as Hannah Kennedy, Mary’s loyal servant and perceptive mother figure
Minor roles are filled by some decent actors without much to do. Kevin Albert is undermined by a ridiculous wig as Count Auberspine of France but redeems himself when he reappears late in the play as Melvil, Mary's house steward. Melvil has secretly become a priest and hears Mary's final confession in one of the production’s most moving scenes.
Faced with what I knew to be the play's epic running-time, I fully expected to hit a boring stretch or two. I never did, thanks in part of Oswald's translation but mainly because of this committed cast.