You might call the play currently occupying Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab Mary Stuart Unplugged. Or Two Dope Queens.
OTC Artistic Director Jason Loewith’s new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s game-of-thrones drama Mary Stuart stips down what is often presented as an epic to just six actors in (mostly) modern dress on a minimal set. This 220-year-old play based on a 450-year-old historical pickle—Elizabeth I’s indecision over what to do with her long-term captive, Mary, Queen of Scots, whom many of Elizabeth’s subjects believed was the rightful heir to the throne—echoes down the centuries in ways that change with shocking rapidity.
When the Folger Theatre did this show just four year ago, the piece felt like a cautionary tale about how the patriarchy will always pit powerful women against one another. But in the wake of the Mueller Report, what resonates most deeply about it is the way Schiller imagined Elizabeth relying on sycophants to execute her plan to, well, execute her rival without suffering the political fallout (or open revolution) that formally issuing a kill order might provoke. Standing in her way are some members of her court, including the nobleman who is holding Mary captive in his house on royal orders, who are going all Don McGahn on her, refusing commands they believe to be unlawful.
Okay, so it’s an imperfect analogy. But there’s symmetry enough with current events to warrant this oft-told tale’s renewal, and the company Loewith has assembled is full of ringers. Megan Anderson pulls double duty as Elizabeth, the most powerful character in the show, and as Mary’s handmaid, the show’s lowliest. She’s better in regal mode, letting us see exactly how draining power, and the omnipresent fear of losing it, can be. Her sense of which of her courtiers to trust falters as the show progresses, and Anderson plays that incremental dissolution with specificity and conviction.
Eleasha Gamble is equally strong as Mary, a leader whose 20 years of confinement have, ironically, stripped her of the humility that might have allowed her to petition Elizabeth to release her. She’s also the actor charged with handling the largest burden of exposition, and she ladles out the chunky dollops of history as capably as anyone could. Elizabeth and Mary’s eventual meeting is Schiller’s ahistorical invention. It’s the show’s most electric scene, and Loewith, true to his less-is-more design, stages their sit-down as a lie-down, with Anderson and Gamble on their bellies, their faces inches apart, as they try to find some sisterhood in this man’s man’s man’s man’s world.
These central performances receive able support from veterans Mitchell Hébert as Shrewsbury, a weary advisor lobbying for Mary’s release, Paul Morella as Burleigh, who wants her dead, and Chris Genebach as Leicester, whose allegiance is uncertain. Jake Lozano does yeoman’s work as Mortimer, acting on Mary’s behalf within Elizabeth’s court.
The stage is a “smoked plexiglass turntable” designed by Loewith and Richard Ouellette, essentially a lazy susan that, coupled with an in-the-round seating configuration, gives us perpetually shifting angles on all the skullduggery and diplomacy. If you can’t put the monarch who reigned during Shakespeare’s rise under a microscope, this is a somewhat adequate alternative.
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. $64–$84. (301) 924-3400. olneytheatre.org.