Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s production of “Schiller’s Mary Stuart” easily could be subtitled “Clash of the Titans.” It’s a highly charged drama that offers a unique perspective on the intersection of politics, power and personal identity as it pits two of history’s most famous female rulers against each other in a fight to the death.
At its heart this production explores the legitimacy of female power in a man’s world. Elizabeth, played with steely resolve by Sherry Jo Ward, may have succeeded to the throne of England, but she’s keenly aware of the precariousness of her perch. She runs her court like a corporate boardroom, holding her men at arm’s length and playing them off one another in a careful dance, fearing that marriage could lead to subordination.
Jennifer Maren’s Mary, Queen of Scots, on the other hand, has married often and unwisely. She’s ruled by her passions and endowed with beauty and a beguiling charm that even her enemies find hard to resist. Now she’s a prisoner, and her cousin Elizabeth holds her life in her hands.
Maren gives a masterful performance as the Scottish queen, effortlessly conjuring Mary’s headlong vivacity and generating sympathy for her captivity while simultaneously revealing the essentially shallow nature and heedless actions that have brought her there. She’s ably matched by Ward’s Elizabeth, who combines a formidable intelligence with jealousy, vanity and a niggling sense of insecurity. The single scene in which the two women appear on stage together crackles with palpable tension.
Director John Heimbuch has assembled a strong ensemble of men surrounding these two powerful women. Standouts include Dustin Bronson as a youthful conspirator whose infatuation with Mary shades into obsession, Robert Gardner as the icily manipulative Lord Burleigh and Adam Whisner as Mary’s honorable jailer. Dave Gangler gives a cleverly nuanced performance as a courtier doomed by the fallout of this epic battle.
Michael Hoover’s starkly elegant set, comprising a series of overlapping arches, cleverly suggests the mazelike machinations unfolding onstage as the black-suited men revolve around queens who are as colorful as two birds of paradise.
If there’s a flaw here, it’s that the pace occasionally lags over the course of a nearly three-hour run time. Peter Oswald’s adaptation, which debuted at the Donmar Warehouse in 2005, gives sparkling life to Schiller’s romantic masterpiece, but it slows almost to a crawl on occasion, with overly literal scenes that cause the production to lose a little of its focus. This is a minor quibble, however, in the face of a staging that’s mostly solid, subtle and full of fight.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.