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|A CurtainUp Review
By David Lipfert
On the still-intact section of West 42nd Street's Theater Row, Pulse Ensemble is currently showing Friedrich von Schiller's romantic masterpiece Mary Stuart from 1800. Even in this economical production, Schiller's raw theatrical brilliance is fully evident.
No matter that beyond the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, most events in the play are fictionalized. The centerpiece encounter between Queen Elizabeth I with her imprisoned cousin never took place, but if it had, the fireworks would have exploded, just as in Pulse's current production.
Theatrical tension starts high and continues until the powerful surprise finale. Double agents populate the corridors of power, and there is more than enough intrigue to engross the murder mystery set. Above all, Schiller provides extraordinary acting opportunities for two leads and ample exposure for finely-characterized supporting players.
While the plot essentially concerns politics, Schiller, like other romantic authors, framed Mary's claim to the English throne instead in religious terms. Mary's over-decade-long imprisonment has incited her Roman Catholic supporters in majority Protestant England and abroad in Scotland and France to attempt her rescue.
As the play opens, Mary's jailer Paulet finds incriminating evidence in her quarters, but Lord Burleigh's eagerness to have her executed for treason stumbles on Elizabeth's indecisiveness. Mary entrusts a message for a former suitor now the Queen's favorite, Leicester, to Paulet's nephew Mortimer, a secret Catholic supporter. At Leicester's insistence, Elizabeth agrees to a surprise meeting with Mary. The royal hunting party encounters Mary outside her tower prison. Appeals for clemency draw Elizabeth's insults, which likewise provoke a riotous scene in which Mary denounces the English Queen as a bastard child of the excommunicated Henry VIII. Even this does not seal Mary's fate, as Elizabeth vacillates first over signing the execution writ and then about its execution. An incognito priest brings Mary the last sacraments and her faithful entourage accompany her to the gallows. Elizabeth meanwhile hides behind the fact she did not give direct orders for the execution, and in best managerial form punishes those involved. The final blow to her composure is sycophant Leicester's flight to (enemy) France.
Pulse Artistic Director Alexa Kelly offers a spirited Elizabeth. Her portrait of the powerful queen is aptly vain and she flies into a furious rage at the drop of a quill pen. I wish that she hadn't also felt the need to resort to adopting the historical Elizabeth's fidgety mannerisms. These worked fine in the well-known film but are unwelcome onstage.
As the title character Laura Leopard makes a potent balance, and her Mary is a fine combination of regal and feminine impulses. She is especially credible during the frequent discussions of religion.
As Elizabeth's principal councilors, Carl J. Danielsen (a gruff Burleigh) and Ed Schultz (a level-headed Shrewsbury) also make an effective duo that pull the Queen in opposite directions. Arthur Lundquist stresses Paulet's moral uprightness as Mary's jailer. As his nephew, Anthony Rand is an earnest Mortimer, but he will need more experience in classic theater to avoid melodrama. Pepe Serventi (Davidson) and Brian Richardson (Melvil) offer effective cameos as inadvertent accomplice to Mary's execution and Mary's House-Steward/priest-in-disguise respectively.
Tom Herman's direction boasts superb blocking and clarity of action. Too bad that he indulges some of the actors. Mark Bogosian's French Ambassador suffers from excess; Lynne-Marie Brown's well-considered and sympathetic portrayal of Mary's nurse Hanna Kennedy is marred by odd vocal production. William Broderick (Leicester) is another victim of vocal mannerism, but in his case an artificially deep voice can also be read as signifying his character's duplicity.
Under Herrick Goldman's straightforward lighting, Jennifer Varvbalow's set appears rather spare. At least the historical sixteenth-century setting is clear, but this is more a function of Terry Leong's costumes, some of which are a bit too natty.
This production is an adaptation based on Sophie Wilkins's translation. For this week through May 20th Brooklyn Academy of Music is presenting the Royal Shakespeare Company in another Schiller historical/political drama, Don Carlos, but in a modern-dress edition. (Our review ).