ACT Theater stormed into their new season with Mary Stuart, an adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s original work by Peter Oswald.
As much as the story itself is littered with deaths, the play is littered with stellar performances; each designed to allow the play and the other characters to breathe.
The intertwining of several facets is oddly symbolic of the world in which the play is set.
Several epic battles of European and world history are being fought in that time period. Protestantism, in its infancy, is fighting to survive its nascent days against the heavy hand of the Papacy which naturally is seeking to destroy the new faith.
Queen Elizabeth is on the throne of England, put there by Protestant noblemen. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, remained loyal to the Catholic faith and has been chased out of Scotland by Protestants there. She sought sanctuary in England, asylum we would call it now, with her relative Queen Elizabeth. The English Queen promptly imprisoned her, and she is kept at the castle of Sir Amias Paulet.
The second strand running through the story is the historical struggle of the Scots to maintain some measure of their independence from their larger southern neighbour.
Mary Stuart is no Alex Salmond or William Wallace. She sought to unite the two crowns under herself and the Catholic Church, although was quick to resort to being Scottish when trying to explain why she was not subject to the laws of England, but that she should accrue rights under the newish concept of international law. In fact, a theme running through the play was of Mary Stuart, a flawed individual in many ways. A hero to some, a hypocrite to others, ‘Mary Stuart’ left us enough leeway to make our own minds up.
To Peter Oswald’s credit, he made no attempt to turn her into a Joan of Arc style victim.
The third strand running through the plots like a vine of twine is that of the role of women in society.
Notionally, the two most powerful characters are female. Yet they find themselves constrained by the machinations of their advisors, especially Elizabeth’s coterie of the hawkish William Cecil, Lord Burleigh (Peter Crook), the doveish George Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury (Allen Fitzpatrick) and the horny Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester (R. Hamilton Wright.).
Burleigh tries to ensure Elizabeth will lop off Mary Stuart’s head, manipulating his way around all the contrary evidence, in a manner that allowed the program notes and the actor himself to compare him to Dick Cheney; a man who seeks to ensure supremacy by violence and sees no other path. He is assured that once the globe is realigned to his blueprint, the new order will herald an era of peace.
But Peter Crook does not portray him in the manner of pantomime evil, but as a patriot who loves his country, and genuinely believes he is doing the right thing. Dick Cheney could do worse than ask that Mr Crook be given the part of the ex-vice President whenever he is to be portrayed, if he is to get a fair shake from history.
It is hard to discern anything in Leicester’s motives other than his burning desire to bed a queen. And why not? It’s a very human motive that Wright disguises behind a loquaciousness natural to a man who believe he can charm the clothes off even a monarch. Even at the end, we are never really sure where his loyalties lie, other than between his legs. One suspects Wright played it so that neither did the Earl of Leicester either. If he did so with that intention, he did so finely.
But if any of the male actors really made an impact between the two outstanding queens, it was Allan Michael Barlow as Sir Amias Paulet, a knight who had been given the role of guarding Mary Stuart in his castle, which to her of course is a prison.
In among the noble breeding of Burleigh, Shrewsbury and Leicester used to wielding power in nuanced ways, Barlow portrayed Sir Amias as a upper working class man promoted upwards because, as the actor himself said afterwards “he was a good company man”.
To the very intonation of his accent, which left a tiny trail of his non noble roots, Barlow pierced the bullseye with his character. Resolute, principled and utterly determined not to allow harm to Mary under his guard, he annoys those above him in station by his singular lack of pragmatism. He is loyal to the principles of England, not its rulers.
He would be happy to kill Mary himself if she was convicted by the laws of England, however should someone try to murder her ‘accidentally’, he will defend her in his own house, with his own life.
He believes in England but he also believes that England stands for something. And yes, Barlow creates some superb on stage electricity when he first stands up to Burleigh who has no answer to this rock of principle.
But the men are just background at least historically, to the titanic struggle between two strong willed and stubborn women.
Anne Allgood takes the title role of Mary Stuart. Mary is tormented by her sexual past; her lovers such as David Rizzio, Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell have a habit of dieing, occasionally at each other’s hand. Her lust for men, especially in her youth, is flaunted as a weakness and juxtaposes superbly with the decision taken by Queen Elizabeth (Suzanne Bouchard, Three Tall Women) to remain a virgin, despite of course the best efforts of the Earl of Leicester.
Mary’s acute feelings of guilt at her past is accentuated by her devotion to the chosen faith of the guilty, Roman Catholicism, and leaves her a tortured individual, suddenly coming to terms with the reality of her powerlessness in the English Kingdom.
In part, she seems to believe she deserves her fate, but her instinct of self preservation, coupled with the unrealistic belief that one day, the forces of France might invade and restore her to both thrones, keeps her going.
Ms Allgood displays Mary’s vulnerability from the outset which contrasts superbly with the veneer of Ms Bouchard who only reveals Elizabeth’s self doubts when pushed to signing the act of regicide, Mary’s death warrant.
In real life, the two queens never met but the play is drama not documentary and allows for a confrontation which raises the tension level in the auditorium so high, faces hung on every word. The other characters in the scene and the audience were as one, as all watched Mary and Elizabeth accuse and defy each other, in awe. In silence.
However my abiding memory of this play will not be a spoken word.
It will not be a scene, the cut and thrust of dialogue. It will be the last moment Anne Allgood left the stage.
As Mary Stuart left the stage to her execution, she mounted the stairs between Aisle’s Five and Six, with an almost godlike demeanour. She swept past me, not swept … glided – as almost on a slope of air; her make up in tact after three hours, her demeanour resolute, her legacy still iconic. My heart took a dip, as it frankly had never done before in a theater.
I may be Scottish but I am no monarchist and certainly harbour no fondness for the Stuart line. I wasn’t watching ‘my queen’ go to her death. I was watching the last rights of a spectacular acting performance.
You have until October 9th before the English lop off Anne Allgood’s head for the last time.
I hope they will sew it back on so that her return to the Seattle stage is sooner rather than alter. For now, take advantage of the chance to see this fantastic play with some fantastic performances.
And ask for a seat on the left of Aisle Five or the right of aisle six!
Directed by Victor Pappas
September 9 – October 9
In the Allen Theatre
Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes