Elise Stone and Joe Menino in The Lifeblood
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Elise Stone and Joe Menino in The Lifeblood
(© Gerry Goodstein)
As the annals of monarchical misery go, surely Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, got one of history's all-time raw deals. Coronated in infancy, affianced to the French dauphin at age five, widowed once at eighteen and soon twice again (under dramatic circumstances), she settled down considerably once she became, at age 26, the effective prisoner of her cousin Elizabeth I, with whom she'd sought asylum. As a Catholic whose claim to the throne was arguably stronger than Elizabeth's own (papists considered the latter illegitimate), Mary required neutralization -- without the added luster of outright martyrdom. It's the very tail end of Stuart's stalled-out life that Glyn Maxwell treats in his 2001 play The Lifeblood, now being given its American premiere by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble in a sadly shapeless production by director Robert Hupp.

Mary (played by Elise Stone with divaesque intensity) has spent over 15 years in cramped, dank, odiferous quarters when a stranger, Sir Thomas Gorge (Jason O'Connell), turns up with a vision of deliverance: He will smuggle in, via beer casks, messages from a young supporter promising rescue. Will Mary fall for the bait? Her French majordomo Claude Arno (plodding Joseph J. Menino) tries to keep her in check. Her Puritan jailer, Sir Amyas Paulet (Mark Waterman), grows ever more repressive, though grudgingly admiring. And Sir Francis Walsingham (whom Craig Smith plays like a wind-up toy tyrant) puts the screws to all concerned.

Maxwell's script hardly proves to be period-appropriate; what are the odds that a 16th-century monarch pleading for her life would ever -- however verklempt she might become -- utter the phrase "I need a moment"? Moreover, this doesn't appear to be one of those shows which have been intentionally transposed in time to underscore some current resonance (although the heavily miked tribunal that eventually grills Stuart suggests, as it's surely meant to, hearings from HUAC to Iraq.) George Xenos' slapdash set with its thrift-shop furniture or Peggy McKowen and Nicole Frachiseur's centuries-spanning costumes also underscore the time-period confusion. And it is a major flaw of this production that little to no attempt is made to maintain British accents.

As the mole with a modicum of conscience, O'Connell alone bears watching. When he describes a scene in the distance -- all the real drama seems to take place beyond the fourth wall -- you believe he's seeing what he says. And if his gestures and intonations continually edge toward the contemporary, there's ultimately no harm done, as the play slogs towards its foregone conclusion.