Review: (Wo)Mano a (Wo)Mano in Chicago Shakespeare’s Mary Stuart

Queen Cousins Mary and Elizabeth. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Mary Stuart aligns with the zeitgeist of today’s #TimesUp moment, where women seize the front and center, onstage and off, trying to harness and wield what power they have, while men continue to lurk and smirk.

For her Chicago directorial debut, Jenn Thompson helms Peter Osward’s 2005 interpretation of Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 script, an imagined meeting of cousins Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.

The Scottish queen (persuasive K.K. Moggie, in her CST debut) has been imprisoned for 19 years in the towering, imposing, brutalist gray cinder block-y set (by Andromache Chalfant), “bricked up alive” with only her nurse Hanna (Barbara Robertson) and her assertion that she is the rightful heir to the long-contested throne.

Her interlocutors insist Mary not receive special treatment befitting her station, that “luxury would distract her from the work of penance.”

Although suffering from understandable cabin fever, she’s collected in demeanor and cool in palette (her forest green gown designed by Linda Cho), as she awaits a chance to argue for her life and for her faith (she’s concerned that’s she’s been unable to see a Catholic priest and receive appropriate rites).

Meanwhile, back at the palace, red-headed Elizabeth (Kellie Overbey, also at CST for the first time) is sensual and fiery in hot pink and royal bling, fielding the pleas of her “Three Bears” advisers: one urges beheading the usurper, another argues for freeing her, and the third suggests imprisoning her for life, to “live in the shadow of the axe” and as an object lesson. She looks up at the balcony seats a lot, perhaps seeking even more capital crime counsel or simply trying to keep her head above the mire of this decision.

A “drive by” the prison castle is arranged while Mary is briefly allowed outside, an “inch of freedom.” Elizabeth rides over during a hunt and the women who share their “sex, blood and rank,” ironically “slaves to their status,” finally meet. Mary largely wins the legal arguments. She wants to face her accusers, and wonders how they intend to assemble a jury of her peers since she is indeed a queen.

But the Scottish monarch has literal skeletons in her closet. She confesses to arranging the death of her husband then marrying his murderer. And she has plotted to overthrow Elizabeth several times.

Later, Elizabeth shares some secrets of her own, some romances for the so-called Virgin Queen, while realizing the impermanence of her consuming decision is still ephemeral: “what we build on earth will all blow away.”

In this iteration, history is made lively and women take the stage with their own agency, a rarity in Early Modern narratives as well as in current theater. The result is intense and engaging, although the production underscores that, in order to succeed, there can be only one head of Team Estrogen. Women can be leaders, but only one at a time.

Mary’s name is in the title, but her head is in the basket.

Mary Stuart runs 2 hours and 50 minutes with one intermission, through April 15 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets are $48-88.

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