Queen Elizabeth I has been represented on screen so many times, we might be tempted to think we really know her. From Dame Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love to Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen is consistently portrayed as ruling England with an iron will and an imperious charm.
But in TheatreWorks' production of Mary Stuart — the 1800 play by preeminent German playwright Friedrich Schiller — local stage veteran Jane Fromme gives Elizabeth a fresh spin that sheds a whole new light on the many perils she faced on the throne.
Hers is a hesitant Elizabeth, a fearful Elizabeth. And no wonder. Thirty years into her reign, she remains the target of countless assassins who question her legitimacy as queen, due as much to her Protestant faith as to her being the "bastard daughter" of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
But it is the presence of her cousin Mary — magnificently brought to life by British-born, NYC-based actress Claire Warden — that poses her greatest threat. After Mary is overthrown as Queen of Scotland, she escapes to England.
The reason? Mary claims it's for refuge. The English Queen insists it's to carry out an assassination.
Although the play never definitively answers this question, Warden plays Mary with so much gusto that I personally never had a doubt. Where Elizabeth agonizes over every decision, Mary plunges forward with passionate abandon. Where Elizabeth defers to her advisers, Mary knows what she wants and goes after it.
The play, given an elegant translation by Peter Oswald, is brilliant, filled with enough intrigue and wit to fill a season of PBS' Downton Abbey.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast seemed a bit bipolar to me. Some of the actors, including John FitzGibbon as Elizabeth's chief adviser and Calvin Thompson as Mary's young lover, took a stagey, old-fashioned approach to their roles, making every line of dialogue sound like a speech.
Now, this could work in a grand, historical play like this. The problem is that others in the cast, such as Steve Emily as the chief jailer and Jason Lythgoe as the hilariously indecisive Secretary of State, took the opposite tack, playing their roles with a more modern, natural sensibility. The difference is jarring, and I can't help but think that the production would have benefited from a firmer hand by director Murray Ross.
Still it's a powerful piece, gaining extra juice from Russell Parkman's stark, imposing set — designed to suggest a modern-day interrogation chamber — and Lloyd Sobel's moody lighting.
Also worth noting is the creative slant on costume design taken by Betty Ross. While she draped the women in full period costumes, Elizabeth looking especially lavish in gowns befitting a queen, the men wore contemporary business suits, which seemed to accentuate their corporate-like scheming and greed.
It doesn't take a history degree to know that in the end, it's Mary's head that falls. But even as she marches to her execution — without fear, without compromise — you may find yourself feeling that she's the one who's victorious.
After all, how we die can be just as important as how we live.