Schiller, you ask? A historical drama that hardly ever graces the American stage? Don't be put off by the costumes or events long gone by. Under the guidance of Carey Perloff, artistic director of A.C.T. in San Francisco (where the play was previously staged), and aided by Michael Feingold's translation, which keeps the majesty of the court but makes it close and personal, the themes are as pertinent to the 21st century as they were to the 16th. Perloff well understands that power comes only at the expense of the possessor's humanity, leeching out any decency that could serve to monitor the deeds. A superlative cast brings the characters from the history books to glowing life.
The play covers the last two days of Mary's life before she is put to death on February 8, 1587, for crimes of treason against England. With a biography that eclipsed any novelist's invention, Mary was forced to flee Scotland after being implicated in the death of her second husband. She arrived on English shores seeking sanctuary, but with political ambitions, or so it seemed. Mary had a claim to the English throne because of her Tudor blood, and therefore threatened her cousin, Elizabeth. Mary's head was required to assuage the English queen's fears. In the end both women were pawns of their birth, fighting for freedom to determine the course of their own lives in a man's world.
Schiller sharpens the rivalry between the queens by making Mary younger and more beautiful than Elizabeth, cursed with the ability to inflame each man she encounters. Elizabeth, who longs for love, knows she cannot give it except as a political prize. Moreover, Mary is a Catholic in a resolutely Prostestant England, currently living in peace under its Protestant Queen. The nation, which had rejected the Church of Rome, still considered it a menacing enemy.
Perloff has cast two convincing actresses in the roles of Elizabeth and Mary: Caroline Lagerfelt, well known for her television identity as Inger Dominguez on Nash Bridges, plays Elizabeth, opposite Rene Augesen as the willful Mary. Lagerfelt is a marvel, giving the queen a public face, a private penchant for meddling behind the scenes to get her way, and an inner torment that wracks her when she faces the consequences of her actions. Augesen makes Mary a mercurial character, intelligent in debating the points of English law with Lord Burleigh, devious in taking her revenge--even from within her prison walls--and breath taking in her femininity.
The other actors are equal to them, especially Marco Barricelli as the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth's favorite, whom Schiller has made Mary's lover in a tweaking of history for dramatic effect. Firdous Bamji as the dangerous zealot Mortimer, Peter Silbert as the honorable jailor Paulet, Richard Ziman as Lord Burleigh, and Richard Ooms as the valiant Earl of Shrewsbury bring authority to the complement of courtiers.
Ralph Funicello's scenic design of walls and pillars, which move in and out to create claustrophobic spaces that enclose the action, is as much a player in the production as the actors and direction. The costumes, designed by Deborah Dryden, add to the spectacle of the unfolding events, and the score of liturgically sounding chants, composed by David Lang, is beautifully performed by the choral group Chanticleer.