Whether you agree with it or not, there's a lesson in Peter Oswald's breathtaking new translation of Friedrich Schiller's 200-year-old Mary Stuart, about the jailing of Mary Queen of Scots by her cousin Elizabeth I: Women can be petty, vindictive, and when it comes to competition (especially with each other), downright ruthless.
It's not a shocking or bold sentiment. But this isn't a shocking or bold play. It's more like a three-hour catfight, nicely played by two superb actresses with a fine supporting cast. For those not up on their British history, Mary (the seductive Janet McTeer, an Oscar nominee for 1999's Tumbleweeds) escaped to England after conspiring to murder her husband and then marrying his killer. She sought amnesty in the kingdom of her cousin Elizabeth I (the straight-backed Harriet Walter, now costarring in PBS' Little Dorrit), who instead tossed her in prison for nearly two decades. Elizabeth's cruelty wasn't completely unwarranted: Mary also had a legitimate claim to the English throne and posed a threat to Elizabeth's rule. As much as Mary desired kind treatment from her cousin, she also wouldn't stop asserting her rights as England's true heir. As long as she was alive, Elizabeth was in constant fear of assassination by Mary's Catholic supporters. They were locked in a Tudor-era grudge match underscored by their opposing personalities (Mary was all passion; Elizabeth, all brains). And that's just the backstory: When the play begins, Mary has just been convicted of treason (an act punishable by execution). Elizabeth only has to sign the death warrant.
To the credit of director Phyllida Law (Mamma Mia!) and her team, the production dispenses with the usual sumptuous period backdrop (this isn't Showtime). Instead, there's one foggy, grey brick set. Mary's cell is lit with anachronistic lamps. And though the women are corseted in dark crinolines, the men wear stiff modern power suits. The effect doesn't as much take you out of history, as keep history from distracting you from the goings on.
Nor is Walter's Elizabeth the flame-haired maiden we've come to expect. The actress dons a dark auburn wig, looking more like the standard wicked witch than the imposing conqueress. Both Walter and McTeer relish their roles, and play up the ladies' similarities. Mary growls with power when she stumbles on a legal loophole that might extend her life. Elizabeth giggles and stretches with delight when she receives flattering compliments about her beauty from her favorite counselor, the Earl of Leicester (who's also Mary's former intended). The self-serving, allegiance-shifting Leicester, can be an awfully dull character, but the excellent John Benjamin Hickey (ABC's It's All Relative) gives him new life here mainly by piling on the skeeziness: When he convinces Elizabeth to meet with Mary (an event that never occurred in real life), he makes it sound half like an inspired publicity stunt and half like a sordid three-way sexcapade. In opposition to Leicester is the completely fictional Mortimer, a self-appointed savior of Mary who wants both to free his queen and have her. Brilliantly played by Chandler Williams (Translations), Mortimer emerges not as a hero but a man possessed, climbing the walls and slithering on the floor.
And that is perhaps the point: Mary Stuart is not a story of heroes vs. villains, good vs. evil, or captive vs. captor. Even historical fact can be bent to its purposes: to relate the crazy tale of one woman at the height of her power kicking another on the way down. Way, way down. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)