Arts & Entertainment

Schiller’s ‘Mary Stuart’ in Elizabethan Garb

Friedrich Schiller is one of the greatest dramatists of German literature, but his works are seldom performed in the U.S. At the Little Theatre of Alexandria (LTA) through May 30, viewers have an opportunity to experience a Schiller tragic drama, and in Elizabethan garb! The play is “Mary Stuart,” based on the life of the doomed Mary Queen of Scotts and her confrontation with her sister, the rival queen, Elizabeth I, who now holds Mary prisoner. Elizabeth fears Mary has been plotting to seize her crown.

Central to the play is a heated confrontation between the “rival queens” in an English park setting, a scene which only took place in Schiller’s imagination, but which is one of the most engaging in the production. Another key moment, sad and yet here performed successfully with some degree of humor, shows Elizabeth’s uneasiness and vacillation about whether or not to sign Mary’s execution order.  

Maria Ciarorrochi as Elizabeth I in Schiller’s “Mary Stuart.” (Photo: Little Theatre of Alexandria)

The helpful program notes by dramaturg Griffin Voltmann point out: “Where Schiller departs from history, [it is] to give a human face to political and historical forces.” While much of the play is fictional, including Schiller’s invented character of Mortimer (played with gravity by John Paul Odle), this is an essential tool of Schiller in bringing historical personages and incidents to life.

Mary Stuart is played by Sarah Cusenza with powerful emotions, moving the audience with her desperate situation. There is a mystery running throughout the play: Mary appears to undergo a character transformation—or is she, too, simply engaged in an intrigue, like nearly all of the other characters in the play? Indeed, court cabals constitute a driving force in other Schiller plays, such as his aptly named “Intrigue and Love.” The ambiguity in excellent performances by Elizabeth’s court advisors (Thomas O’Neil), Talbot (Paul Donahue), and especially Burleigh (John Henderson) also underscores this theme of intrigue.  

Elizabeth I herself is played wonderfully by Maria Ciarrochi, who takes the character—and the audience—on Elizabeth’s journey through turns of confidence, self-doubt, and a growing realization of the limits of her power.  “What are kings and queens?” Elizabeth asks rhetorically at one point. “Slaves to their stations.”  Lord Burleigh, who advocates forcefully for Mary’s execution, states at one point that Elizabeth and by extension many a king and queen are “raised to power by a lucky throw of the dice.”

Costume designers Juliana Cofrancesco, Carol Pappas, Carol Pappes, and Robin Worthington render this play accessible for the audience with gorgeous Elizabethan costumes, especially for Elizabeth I, with long gowns, high collars, and cloaks. The sets by designer Matt Liptak are highly effective, with a rotating portion of the stage doubling as Mary’s narrow confined space as well as the throne of Elizabeth at her court, transporting us between the opposing situations of the two queens. 

The translation by Peter Oswald is crisp and engaging, although we were not entirely sure he should be credited in the program as “author of the play.”  We learned that co-producer Hilary Adams lived for four years in Heidelberg and is fluent in German; she checked the original German of Schiller at those points at which there seemed to be unclear portions in the translation. 

Director Kathleen Barth brings all of the elements of dramatic confrontation, Elizabethan pageantry, and commentary on court intrigue and fate into a highly entertaining production of “Mary Stuart.”  As the performance is three hours and highly detailed, however, audiences might wish to read up on the history behind the historical events beforehand in order to appreciate fully the finer details of the story and recognize the liberties Schiller took with Elizabethan history for powerful dramatic effect.