When you read that in shaping his new play about a suburban family’s dark secrets, author Jason Grote painstakingly followed the scene-for-scene structure of an 1800 German Romantic tragedy about Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, words like ambitious and risky come to mind. Also: Heady. If you’re less charitably inclined, words like mannered, schematic, airless, and pretentious-as-all-get-out.
Happily, when you actually see the thing, the script’s elaborately wrought and potentially distracting scaffolding falls away. Woolly’s world premiere production of Maria/Stuart stands on its own, buttressed by Grote’s uncanny sense of the uncanny, several big laughs, production design that dazzles without stealing focus, and a variety-pack of actors who know exactly what they’re doing.
Granted, you don’t have to look too hard to see the debt Maria/Stuart owes to Friederich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, but Grote has switched out the engine: In Schiller, overwrought Romantic emotions buffet the characters about. In Maria/Stuart, that work is accomplished by the show’s supernatural element—a sinister, shape-shifting presence (played at different times by different members of the cast) that haunts each character in turn. While guzzling 2-liter bottles of soda.
Which, right there, is why it works. Grote proves particularly deft at comic deflation, permitting few if any of the play’s Big Moments—whether poignant, violent or creepy—to remain intact. Just give it a beat or two, and some character will undercut the tension with a banal comment or bit of slapstick.
Director Pam MacKinnon manages to meld actors of markedly different temperaments into a coherent whole without dampening their individuality. So Sarah Marshall gets to show off a bit—to great effect, I hasten to add—as both doddering grandmother Ruthie and the mysterious Sprite-quaffing Changeling. Naomi Jacobson’s elfin presence, dotty delivery, and practiced ease with prosthetics (you’ll see) garner some of the evening’s biggest reactions, and deservedly so. But MacKinnon leaves room for smaller, less kooky performances to register, like Amy McWilliams’ world-weary Marnie and Meghan Grady’s smart, bluntly practical Hannah.
The end of Maria/Stuart centers on its three middle-aged sisters (Jacobson, McWilliams, and Emily Townley’s Lizzie) and their long-buried secret. The script seems determined to locate the heart of the play here, but I got the sense that MacKinnon’s staging doesn’t necessarily agree. It’s as if the production itself is leery of spending energy on the stock family-drama revelations that so dutifully emerge from the sisters’ dialogue, especially when there are spikier, less familiar elements to play with, like Marshall’s wacked-out demon and the squirmy relationship between Hannah and her cousin Stuart (Eli James, bringing equal measures of warmth and nerditude to his portrayal).
True to its German blueprint, the play demands some Sturm to go with all its onstage Drang, and Woolly’s design team has got the Sturm front covered: Together, Colin K. Bills’ eerie lighting and Matthew M. Nielson’s noodly soundscapes keep the line between the natural and unnatural worlds distinct but chillingly porous. As you tilt your head upward, James Krozner’s realistic set goes feathery at the edges: a frozen cascade of kitchen cabinetry soars up into the flyspace, collapsing inward over the stage even as it rises. It’s an arresting image—one that neatly captures both the doom hanging over Grote’s characters and this production’s vertiginous flights of imagination.