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The War to Be Queen Rages in Mary Stuart

K.K. Moggie and Kellie Overbey lead Chicago Shakespeare Theater's regal drama.

Kellie Overbey as Queen Elizabeth I and K.K. Moggie as Mary, Queen of Scots, in a scene from Mary Stuart, directed by Jenn Thompson, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
(© Liz Lauren)

In 1586, the legend goes, Queen Elizabeth I arranged a secret meeting with her cousin, rival and prisoner Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. This meeting never actually happened, but in 1800, Friedrich Schiller codified it with his political drama Mary Stuart, and the legend has been irresistible ever since. Chicago Shakespeare Theater's current production, directed by Jenn Thompson and starring K.K. Moggie in the title role and Kellie Overbey as Queen Elizabeth I, looks back at this apocryphal meeting of the monarchs through a distinctly modern lens.

Though history books clock Mary's time imprisoned at 21 years, Schiller's drama illustrates only her final few days. Fearing a papist revolution and a surge of support for the Catholic queen, Elizabeth's advisors pressure her to take decisive action against her cousin. The vigilant Lord Burleigh (David Studwell) advises Elizabeth toward a swift execution, while George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury (Robert Jason Jackson) counsels prudence and mercy. Meanwhile, as Mary is languishing in confinement at Fotheringhay Castle, young Mortimer (an explosive performance by Andrew Chown), Mary's jailer's nephew and a secret Catholic convert, arrives with promises of liberation.

All the scheming and maneuvering intersects in one pivotal scene: a face-to-face meeting between the two wildly different women. Overbey's Elizabeth I is a calculating woman who is primarily concerned with her public appearance and her legacy. In court, she dangles her virtue like a carrot over Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (a smarmy, preening Tim Decker), Mortimer, and the unseen Duke of Anjou, but left alone, she agonizes over the fate of England. Her words and actions are chosen cannily to avoid implicating herself in Mary's condemnation. By contrast, Moggie's Mary is a passionate, zealous woman whose words seem to spring forth unbidden. Conspirator and murderer though she may be, in Moggie's capable hands, Mary is magnetic and undeniably sympathetic. When the two women come together, the verse sounds as modern and vital as any contemporary courtroom drama.

Intricately constructed costumes designed by Linda Cho incorporate sleek modern elements into period design. When Elizabeth rides to Fotheringhay to confront Mary at last, the rigid architectural shoulders of her gown call to mind the pauldrons that a medieval knight would wear to battle, if the knight was dressed by Zac Posen. Mary is dressed more restrictively, as befits her position as a prisoner of the Queen's justice, but the details are just as well-considered. The opposed monarchs are like two gashes of color against Andromache Chalfant's set design, a series of cold gray Brutalist slabs that make up Mary's literal prison and the confines of Elizabeth's court. The feeling of restriction is further emphasized by the lighting design by Greg Hofmann and Philip Rosenberg, which creates sharp lines and tight spaces in the expansive thrust of Chicago Shakespeare's Courtyard Theater.

Peter Oswald's fast-moving adaptation and Thompson's dynamic staging propel Mary Stuart's cast of 13 through the historical drama while allowing for modern ideas and influence. Throughout the play, gender is often referred to as a mutable set of qualities rather than a stark state of being. "Male recklessness overcame you," Mary is warned by her lifelong nurse Hanna (Barbara Robertson). Elizabeth frets about her female nature as something to vanquish and supplant with male certainty. These queens, Mary Stuart suggests, were imprisoned as much by the circumstances of their birth as by controlling councils or castle walls.

Though, of course, much has changed since the days of the Tudor queens, Mary Stuart is an essential exploration of the intersection of gender and power, fiercely acted and finely staged in this exemplary new production.