Something About Mary: Even Queen Elizabeth I finds sympathy for Mary Stuart.
Something About Mary: Even Queen Elizabeth I finds sympathy for Mary Stuart.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, especially if the head connived and murdered its way into it. And if that head belongs to a woman? That’s something else entirely.

To celebrate the opening of its svelte new black box in Rosslyn’s Artisphere complex—a major upgrade from its old digs at the Clark Street Playhouse—the 20-year-old Washington Shakespeare Company has doubled down on British history, preparing concurrent stagings of Richard III and Mary Stuart, Friederich Schiller’s 19th century tale of 16th century royal intrigue.

It’s a truly, er, dynamic duo, in the sense that the plays talk to one another: In Richard, inspired by historical events a hundred years before Shakespeare’s prominence, we have his most outsized malefactor. In Mary Stuart, which looks back on Elizabethan tymes from a vantage point of two centuries (four, if we’re talking about the 2005 Peter Oswald translation used here), we see how it was in Shakespeare’s interest to flex even more artistic license than usual immortalizing Richard as a “hellhound that does hunt us all to death.” The Bard of Avon was a subject of Queen Elizabeth I, whose legitimacy was contested. It was flattery to the playwright’s sovereign that fueled this depiction of Richard as a beast whose deformity reflected interior corruption, and whose prodigious devilry ultimately served God’s plan to drag England, however bloodily, into a new Golden Age of benign Tudor rule. It would be ungrateful to question the royal credentials of whoever delivered the realm from Richard’s gnarled hands. Oh, was that your grandpappy who did that, my queen? You must be so proud! I can see the resemblance!

In juxtaposing vivid productions of each play, WSC illuminates all sorts of fun connections between the two pieces, though they operate independently of one another and share no actors. If on balance I prefer director Colin Hovde’s less cluttered (and not for nothing, less populated) Mary, it’s only because the contours of the intrigue—Elizabeth’s pained deliberation over what to do with her cousin Mary, the beautiful Scottish queen whom Elizabeth believed had conspired to kill her—are less familiar.

Directors Christopher Henley and Jay Hardee have given Richard a cyberpunk sheen, dressing much of the cast as glam rockers or goths while giving others Maori-styled face tattoos and spurring the tempo with a pulsating electronic score. Frank Britton, who perfected his limp playing another possibly supernatural menace in Constellation’s Temptation two years ago, makes an admirably protean Richard, a persuader as charming and repulsive as the role demands.

As with the tale of warring royal houses best known to us these days—that’s The Godfather, right?—this Richard rubs rightest when it’s rubbing fools out. Each assassination is a bravura set piece. The casting of Anne Nottage and Carolyn Myers as the two murderers (outfitted for their grim errands in tight skirts, fishnets, and sensible knee-high PVC boots) brings a frisson to Nottage’s retort to a pleading Clarence that to be dissuaded from her mission to clip him would be “womanish.” When it’s time for Hastings to get got, they don’t slit his throat—they devour him like vampires. (Sound designer David Crandall even gives us a chainsaw cue for some of the bloodletting.) Later, the nightmares that plague Richard the night before his defeat at Bosworth Field are staged as zombie attacks, the tyrant’s victims groaning and lurching their way toward him.

Mary is equally blessed with advantageous casting. As Mary and Elizabeth, respectively, Heather Haney and Sara Barker—who pitched the show—are worthy adversaries, and their single shared scene is the evening’s most electric. Haney finds the right note between Mary’s piety—well, she did have her husband offed and then hit the sack with his killer, but nobody’s perfect—and the “What, this old thing?” magnetism that enables her to command from her prison house sympathizers and conspirators both. Alex Vaughan’s hot-blooded Mortimer, nephew to her jailer, and Joe Brack (by turns charming and craven as Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s longtime suitor who, in this telling secretly pines for Mary just like all the other boys in the yard), show us how men of varying age succumb to Mary’s charms.

How Elizabeth and Mary must keep men at a distance to retain their authority is a theme that spins out neatly. Only in private counsel with Brack does Barker permit Elizabeth any vulnerability, sitting on the floor with him casually as they talk. Barker doffs off her regal posture in this brief encounter, showing us how wearying her otherwise incessant projection of strength must be. The point is subtly made: No king would have to deny himself rest as this queen must.

Richard’s opening speech is oft cited as a model of diabolical efficiency, but this Mary is just as quick out of the gate. Hovde floods the stage with his full company, then has them close around Mary like a fist. Immediately she’s hearing her sentence from Lee Liebeskind’s cool, unsympathetic Lord Burleigh, using the occasion to protest the makeup of the 42-man, no-woman jury that has condemned her.

Mary is already Elizabeth’s prisoner, under house arrest in the home of a principled nobleman. (Christopher Mancusi brings an appealing dignity to the role.) The neatest solution would be to execute her and be done with it, but even a monarch supposedly anointed by the Almighty must calculate the political cost of her decisions—and Barker is superb at tempering Elizabeth’s prerogative with this awareness. Elizabeth was a thoroughly modern woman, never more so than when trying to erect for herself a scrim of plausible deniability in her rival’s death. Where covert assassination fails, she resorts to the insulating powers of bureaucracy, and in an otherwise riveting evening, this scene alone falls short: Perhaps because we haven’t been adequately introduced to Joshua Drew’s unlucky functionary charged carrying out the order, the vibe is more put-upon intern that sacrificial lamb when Elizabeth throws him under the carriage.

The black box is versatile and handsome enough an environment that both shows use minimal scenic elements without wanting for anything. Moving from Richard to Mary, set and lighting designers Tobias Harding and John Burkland (both worked on both shows) replace the former’s tech-noir nightclub look with exposed bulbs suggestive of a prison or even the stars on a clear night—a nice touch for a struggle between two rulers who question each other’s celestial commission, and may privately doubt their own. Hovde and his team ingeniously repurpose simple wooden chairs as their set, stacking them precariously to become trees, and sometimes tossing them across the stage like juggler’s clubs while Barker strides heedless through the line of fire.

Barker doesn’t show a trace of fear for those flying objects, and indeed, the play’s most indelble takeaway is that of the hardened Elizabeth, friendless in victory—like Michael Corleone! And yet the ageless virgin queen who ruled this man’s man’s man’s world for 44 years turns out to be as impotent as Lady Anne when Richard prostrates himself before her and offers her his sword. Elizabeth will hold the blade to her enemy’s heart, but the killing thrust she must leave to others.