The ladies who most recently ruled Britain — Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria — have been getting a lot of attention lately thanks to Netflix’s “The Queen” and “Victoria” on PBS’s “Masterpiece.” Chicago Shakespeare Theater now adds to this royal list by putting the spotlight on two earlier monarchs — Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.
Traveling farther back in British history to the 16th century, Chicago Shakespeare stages “Mary Stuart,” Peter Oswald’s translation of German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s account (written in 1800) of the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, cousins whose relationship fell victim to the political maneuvering of the time.
When:To April 15
Where:Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand
Director Jenn Thompson says she is drawn to plays that give actors an opportunity to “strut their stuff” and this play fits that bill.
“When a play like this comes along and has that in spades but also has roles for two women, make that two middle-aged women, quite frankly it rings all the bells for me,” Thompson says.
The centerpiece of the play is a fictional account of a meeting between the Catholic Mary, hoping for a reprieve from her 19-year imprisonment, and Protestant Elizabeth, who is her jailer but also hesitant to sign her death warrant. It’s a meeting that never happened in real life; the women communicated only via written correspondence.
In writing the drama, Schiller took many liberties with actual history, and Thompson is glad he did.
“”I’m grateful for that because it opens up the play for us,” Thompson says. “This is not a museum piece. His dramatization of these women and these events opens the door for us in every way. Not having to color between the lines is very freeing.”
The 13-member cast features K.K. Moggie as Mary and Kellie Overbey as Elizabeth, both making their Chicago Shakespeare debut portraying the cousins whose lives, both politically and personally, were very different.
Mary (1542-1587), the daughter of King James I of Scotland, grew up in an environment of privilege and entitlement; she was considered very beautiful, married three times by the age of 25 and was seen as a threat to her cousin’s claim to the throne. Elizabeth (1533-1603), the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was declared illegitimate after her mother was beheaded and the marriage annulled. After the usual machinations of the British court of that time, she ascended to the throne as the Virgin Queen, whose reign would provide stability for her kingdom.
Moggie feels Mary’s background was “both a blessing and a curse.”
“She’s kind of like the Kim Kardashian of her day,” Moggie says, with a laugh. “She was always in the limelight and on this pedestal with an image she had to live up to.”
But in the play after 19 years of imprisonment, Mary is not “this brand anymore,” she adds. “She’s weathered, she’s haggard and she’s emotionally drained and in a really different place as she tries to convince her cousin to let her live.”
As for Elizabeth, Overbey says she found plenty to relate to.
“First of all, her experience with the inevitable cynicism and frustration that comes with growing into middle age as a woman was relatable,” Overbey explains. “And I’m also interested in women in power and how gender can be an obstacle for them in accessing their full power.”
Director and actresses think “Mary Stuart” takes on a whole new feel when staged in today’s atmosphere of sexual and workplace harassment.
“The conversation between femininity and power and sexuality and power I think makes the play feel incredibly contemporary,” Thompson says.
Adds Overbey: “In today’s MeToo atmosphere, I think the play will stand out in a way that it didn’t as recently as 10 years ago.”
Thompson admits it’s always a challenge when staging a historical play with a known outcome. She hopes audiences are so engrossed in the language and story that they forget, at least for the moment, how this meeting of queens, actually turns out.
“Both of these women have very strong points of view and then, of course, they are manipulated by the men around them. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Elizabeth and Mary could have really hashed it all out on their own. But neither was allowed to make decisions like men. They were both in prison, the prison of their gender.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.