Two mighty royals face-off in Chicago Shakespeare’s powerful ‘Mary Stuart’

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Queen Elizabeth I (Kellie Overbey) contemplates her next move, as a cadre of lords and advisors (Andrew Chown, from left), Tim Decker, Kevin Gudahl, Robert Jason Jackson, David Studwell, and Michael Joseph Mitchell) jockey for power in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Mary Stuart.” | Michael Brosilow

Friedrich Schiller’s classic play “Mary Stuart,” playing at Chicago Shakespeare in a beautifully looking and fitfully engrossing production, depicts two dramatic days in the life of two royal Queens.

The first is the Mary of the title, better known to us as Mary, Queen of Scots, who has spent years in an English prison and faces a potential death sentence from her cousin, England’s Queen Elizabeth I. Mary, played by K.K. Moggie, is all confident righteousness and heated impulse. Moggie storms around the stunningly spare, gray, brutalist set (from Andromache Chalfant), protesting to anyone who will listen about the horrific injustice of (to her) tragic downfall from the heights of power to the humiliations of powerlessness.

‘Mary Stuart’ ★★★ When: Through April 15th Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier Tickets: $48-$88 Info: Run time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission

Elizabeth, on the other hand, played by Kellie Overbey, combines cool calculation with the restless impatience of having to deal with a bothersome judgment call. Dressed in a spectacular fuschia gown (from Linda Cho), Overbey stays far more still, relying on small gestures and remarkably expressive eye stares to comment on all the contradictory advice her all-male retinue of advisors offers. Kill her, suggests the harsh Lord Burleigh (David Studwell), before Mary inspires a Catholic revolt on the throne. Save her, says the gentle Earl of Shrewsbury (Robert Jason Jackson), for she could be more powerful in death than life (also, for the sake of mercy). Save her for now but retain the option, says the cunning ladies’ man Earl of Leicester (Tim Decker), Elizabeth’s (and Mary’s) undeserving favorite.

For the German Schiller, who wrote this lasting work in 1800, the play represented a sympathetic take on Mary as noble sufferer. Perhaps it is English playwright Peter Oswald’s version of the work, or director Jenn Thompson’s take on it, or simply Overbey’s oh-so-biting glances and strong, sometimes even comic, desire to avoid any resolution at all, but this production expresses its most compelling compassion for Elizabeth.

Mary Stuart (K.K. Moggie, foreground) implores her cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Kellie Overbey) to release her from her imprisonment in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Mary Stuart,” directed by Jenn Thompson at CST’s Courtyard Theater. | MICHAEL

Mary Stuart (K.K. Moggie, foreground) implores her cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Kellie Overbey) to release her from her imprisonment in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Mary Stuart,” directed by Jenn Thompson at CST’s Courtyard Theater. | MICHAEL BROSILOW

The play is simply most alive when focused on Elizabeth. Not only does Elizabeth’s decision-making drive the plot — will she or won’t she order that Mary die? — and thus draw our attention unendingly to the Virgin Queen. In Overbey’s hands, and especially her ever-so-slightly tilting head, the choosing becomes more entertaining than it probably has a right to be. There are the actual political contemplations, where no action has a certain and safe outcome. But Overbey’s Elizabeth is also just plain annoyed, and justly so, at many things at once. At having to make an impossible decision, yes, but also at the fact that what makes the choice even more impossible is her female-ness. Being a woman in power brings added expectations in both directions – that she might express weakness if she keeps Mary alive, or an unlikeable steeliness if she doesn’t. It makes matters worse that the subject of her determination is also a woman, who therefore seems to deserve, or not deserve, more forgiveness. We hear, but also see, absolutely all of this in a performance that is wondrous in its ability to let us into Elizabeth’s every thought and feeling. The fact that this portrait often comes across as deeply unflattering only makes it more human, and thus more intriguing.

The centerpiece of the play depicts a fictional scene where Elizabeth and Mary meet. It should be drippingly juicy in the way the Queens’ layered subtleties gradually give way to straightforward, but ripe, dialogue. But at least this early in the run that juiciness just isn’t there. Perhaps it’s the one error in the set design – putting a small pool between the women. Or maybe it’s just that Moggie’s Mary starts out rushed and intense and unable to pretend respect, even if her words at first attempt to convey it, and ends exactly the same way.

Mary’s extremity of feeling is even topped in this production by the able Canadian actor Andrew Chown as Mortimer, who after his secret conversion to Catholicism returns home to England with a plan to help Mary escape. The fervidness of his passion comes through in a way that Mary’s rarely does.

But although Tim Decker’s Earl of Leicester provides vivid moments of both cleverness and spinelessness as he tries to gauge the political winds, he can’t come close to overshadowing Overbey’s Elizabeth for a decisive, and decidedly excellent, depiction of indecision.

Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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