Queens struggle for power in JTC’s ambitious ‘Mary Stuart’
Two great divas from the local theater scene play two of the greatest divas in history in “Mary Stuart,” the inaugural offering of the Jewel Theatre Company’s 2012-2013 season. This historical play dramatizes the conflict between Queen Elizabeth Tudor of England and her cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, a volatile pair of queens brought to life con brio at Center Stage by JTC veterans Diana Torres Koss and Julie James.
When director Susan Myer Silton went looking for a property with strong female roles, it’s easy to see why she pounced on this one. Based on an 1800 German play by Friedrich Schiller and given a spiffy new translation by English playwright Peter Oswald in 2005, “Mary Stuart” distills the complex power struggle between the two queens into a subtle war of wills and words as both women navigate the often-conflicting demands of honor, politics, religion, the obligations of queenship, and the vagaries of the human heart.
In 1587, Mary (James) and her loyal servant, Hanna (a fervent Monica Cappiccini, with a heroic Scots burr) are imprisoned in England. Mary is accused of complicity in a recent plot against the English Queen, but (as we’re told in a great deal of exposition in the opening scenes), she’s been under virtual house arrest ever since she fled Scotland years earlier under a cloud of scandal, and has been trying to get an audience with her second cousin, Elizabeth, ever since.
But Mary is Catholic, a big problem for Elizabeth (Torres Koss) in Protestant England, where Catholic factions are always plotting to unseat her. Mary longs for her freedom, but above all she wants to be recognized as Elizabeth’s legitimate successor, according to her birthright. Elizabeth longs to avoid executing a fellow queen for treason, but she understands that even putting Catholic Mary in line for, let alone on, the throne will plunge her beloved people into civil war.
Mary finds an ally in young Mortimer (the persuasive Robert Anthony Peters), nephew to her stoic but fair-minded jailer, Paulet (Chad Davies). Mortimer has recently undergone a secret conversion to Catholicism (“The faith I was brought up in hates the senses,” he discovered, on a trip to Italy), and is plotting to break Mary out of prison. Meanwhile, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Bill Olson, shifting easily from droll comedy to pathos), longtime favorite of Elizabeth, harbors dangerous feelings for Mary.
Torres Koss is fun to watch; her Elizabeth is imperious, cajoling and sly, weighing her personal sense of honor against the welfare of her people and the will of her counselors—including Jesse Caldwell as rigid Burleigh, and Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, played as a sympathetic mediator by Robert Owens-Greygrass. The machinations by which she manages to shift blame for Mary’s death warrant to her hapless secretary, William Davison (a funny Andrew Davids) highlights the play’s second half.
As Mary, the always reliable James (she is also JTC’s Artistic Director) is winsome, even girlish, unbending in her imprudent demand for a place in the royal lineage, and impressively serene on her execution day. James’ choice of a soft French accent (Mary was raised in France), and her halo of unruly curls underscore another key conflict between the queens: Mary envies the shrewdness with which her cousin maintains her power, while Elizabeth is jealous that thrice-married Mary has freely indulged in all the passions of womanhood.
Their one scene together (in real life, they never met) begins with promising gamesmanship, but devolves into hysteria, which is more a fault of the play than the production. Another problem is an onstage suicide, which needs a faster, crisper blackout. Ditto Silton’s attempt at a slow, cinematic fadeout at the end, which left the opening night audience uncertain if the play was over.
Ron Gasparinetti’s set is a marvel for that small space, with the massive stone walls of Mary’s prison folding back to reveal Elizabeth’s throne room and privy chamber. And costumer Jane Farrar’s witty suggestion of luxurious royal dress—velvet, pearls, lace, brocade—without the bother of hoop skirts and puffy sleeves is a delight throughout. Overall, this is another ambitious production from a company that’s never afraid to challenge its audience.
The Jewel Theatre Company production of ‘Mary Stuart’ plays Thursdays-Sundays through September 23 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. For ticket info, call 425-7506 or visit jeweltheatre.net.