Jessica Phelps West must have been to the manner born -- or maybe to the Tudor born. Theatre in the Square's Mary Stuart marks the fourth time the Atlanta actress has played Queen Elizabeth, as she previously ascended to the throne at Theatrical Outfit's Elizabeth I and Theatre in the Square's The Masque of Queens and Elizabeth the Queen.
She certainly rules over Mary Stuart, all but glowing with royal entitlement and offering a fresh perspective on the "Virgin Queen's" conflicts of gender and duty. Phelps fulfills the deep ambitions of Mary Stuart, even as much of the ensemble seem like pretenders in a royal drama.
Jennifer Akin plays Mary Stuart, better known as Mary, Queen of Scots, who Elizabeth keeps under "protective custody" after a Scottish civil war. But since Mary is a legitimate daughter of prior monarch Henry VIII, while Elizabeth is a bastard, Mary has a genuine claim on the English crown. Elizabeth faces a dilemma, risking her own position if she lets Mary live, but facing a harsh judgment of world opinion, history and her own conscience if she executes Mary without just cause.
Though Elizabeth flourishes in plush Westminster and Mary dwindles in bleak Fotheringay castle, each woman wrestles with courtly intrigues. Mary can't decide if she should trust young Mortimer (Brandon O'Dell), who promises to help her escape. Elizabeth vacillates between her adviser Shrewsbury (Jim Peck), who argues for mercy, and Burleigh (David Milford), who argues for the expediency of Mary's death.
With an English monarch keeping a powerful relative in captivity, Mary Stuart has parallels to The Lion in Winter, only with none of that play's high wit. Exposition heavily weighs on the play, especially in its first scene, in which the back story flows in either low mutters or loud exclamations. Jean Stock Goldstone and John Reich freely adapt the 200-year-old text by German playwright Friedrich Schiller (a contemporary of Goethe), but their translation lacks the robust language of the best modern history plays.
Directed by August Staub, Mary Stuart is overpopulated by performers who either appear uncomfortable or overly campy in the period setting. O'Dell seems too nice and fresh-faced to convincingly live up to Mortimer as an impassioned double-dealer. As Elizabeth's platonic paramour Leicester, Alan Kilpatrick retains too much of the lasciviousness of his recent T-Square parts such as Tartuffe. Leicester suppressed his love of Mary to fruitlessly try to woo Elizabeth, giving the role a tragic dimension. Yet Kilpatrick's Leicester, like Milford's Burleigh, leans too much toward the comic to allow the deeper aspects to come across.
Despite its numerous characters and complex historical forces (such as the rivalry of Protestants and Catholics), Mary Stuart is at heart about the difference between two queens. Elizabeth believes she must deny her femininity in the name of royal duty, and resents the famously beautiful Mary for being able to be both a queen and a woman.
Yet the actresses play against expectations. Akin gives the more pious, contained performance, which may reflect the character's imprisonment. Her Mary seems beaten from the play's outset, and we scarcely see the charisma of Mary's reputation.
Despite playing a Virgin Queen, West portrays the more sensual one. Elizabeth makes a rather vulgar first impression, receiving a French ambassador while gnawing on finger food, then picking her teeth. Later she aggressively flirts with Leicester, stroking his stockinged leg with a rose. (It's hard to tell if the contrast in Akin and West's acting contains an implication about submission, dominance and traditional gender roles.)
West redeems Mary Stuart's flaws by capturing Elizabeth's divided feelings for her state, her sister and her self-interest, until we believe that she ultimately doesn't know what she wants. Mary Stuart may not live up to its intentions, but West gives a performance fit for a queen.
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