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A CurtainUp Review
The Lifeblood, Glyn Maxwell's penetrating retelling of the last days of Mary Stuart, not only offers valuable insights on the nature of power and its abuse, but also gives the audience ninety minutes of riveting entertainment. While Maxwell gets the credit for the insights, it is Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's artistic director Robert Hupp whose direction brings out all the dramatic power of the plot.
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The play begins with Mary Stuart (Elise Stone) imprisoned in Sheffield by her cousin Elizabeth I. She has been held captive for eighteen years, ever since she and her third husband, the Earl of Bothwell, were defeated at the Battle of Langside. Mary's final jailer is the Puritan, Sir Amyas Paulet (Mark Waterman), who is torn between his desires to obey his queen and follow his conscience. But the real power lies in the hands of Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, whom Craig Smith plays as a cynical but devoted subject of the queen.
In her drafty, bare and lonely room, where even the tapestry she wove for herself is eventually torn off the wall, Mary has one confidant, the loyal but fearful Claude Arno (Joseph J. Menino). When Sir Thomas Gorge (Jason O'Connell) appears and offers the possibility of escape, it's no surprise that she follows him blindly to her doom.
Although there is an excellent supporting cast, it is Stone who furnishes The Lifeblood with its heart and soul. She brilliantly gives the historical Mary a vivacious personality that swings potently from self-pity and despair to charm and irony to defiance and nobility. Whether she is speaking as a mother, a queen, a captive or a woman, she is always believable and commanding. Stone executes Mary's impassioned speech in her defensewith dignity, courage and intelligence. Maxwell's language at times verges on the Shakespearean and at other times, seems as current as today's newspaper, an element that this reviewer didn't find particularly jarring
George Xenos has divided the set into a ground floor and a balcony, which separates Mary symbolically from her persecutors. The lighting design of Izzy Einsidler keeps the stage dark and foreboding. Sound designer Betsy Rhodes provides ominous clashes and clangs. But one can question the decision to keep Mary's accusers offstage during her trial. This puts too much of a burden on Stone and precludes any real interaction between Mary and her tormentors. The play is weakened without this human element.
When Mary was finally convicted of treason, despite her well-reasoned arguments in her defense, it was mostly thanks to the power of torturing witnesses and forging documents. This will strike a resounding chord with critics of the current administration. But it will also speak mightily to all those who champion freedom, human rights and individual dignity.
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