COURTESY FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY  Kate Eastwood Norris (Mary Stuart) and Holly Twyford (Queen Elizabeth) are pitted against one another in this turbulent drama, set in 16th century Europe.
COURTESY FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY
Kate Eastwood Norris (Mary Stuart) and Holly Twyford (Queen Elizabeth) are pitted against one another in this turbulent drama, set in 16th century Europe.

The current production of Friedrich Schiller’s classic political drama, “Mary Stuart,” at the Folger Theatre showcases the most storied rivalry of English history in a gripping and dramatic performance. Director Richard Clifford adds depth to the story of Queen Mary of Scotland and her cousin, Elizabeth I of England, by layering its many dynamic themes.

Throughout the play, Mary is imprisoned in England under charges of attempted regicide. Her captor and cousin, Elizabeth, hesitates to sign her death warrant. The two great queens subsequently engage in a battle of prejudice, power that ultimately pits them against each other.

Clifford’s “Mary Stuart” is just as much about the protagonist’s rival, Elizabeth. Although the two majestic women never actually meet each other, Mary is the greatest challenge faced by Elizabeth throughout her 45-year reign.

Yet, in many ways, Mary and Elizabeth are inversions and reflections of each other. Mary’s morality is contrasted with Elizabeth’s degradation, as the latter plots the death of the former. Mary is humbled by the bleak prospect of prison and death, while Elizabeth succumbs to the vanity of victory over her rival. Further, Mary’s vulnerability sharply contrasts Elizabeth’s authority. Lastly, Mary speaks of spiritual liberation, poetry and truth, while Elizabeth, eager to defend her reputation and win the favor of her people, practices politics. To add to this character comparison, the setting of Mary’s prison visually contrasts the staging of Elizabeth’s majestic throne.

Mary and Elizabeth also share many similarities. Underneath the characters’ opposing traits, Clifford also showcases their shared insecurities, quests for power, pride and entitlements to their thrones. Clifford compares the two historical figures through the characters’ interactions as well as the contrasting scenes.

Actress Kate Eastwood Norris’ illustration of Mary Stuart is filled with humanity and dignity. Faced with Elizabeth’s prodding, she turns from a vulnerable, compassionate queen to a brittle contester.

Holly Twyford, who plays Elizabeth, is subtle and cold, grappling with a distinct balance of discrete political ruthlessness. Twyford embodies the distant and unsympathetic queen, portraying her inherent strength without the excessive, blatant use of force.

COURTESY FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY
COURTESY FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY

The austere stage design, with little color and dim lighting, adds to the ominous tension of the political-power game. Black and white are the only colors on stage, with occasional gold in scenes where Elizabeth sits on her throne. The feeble lighting sets the tone for the medieval atmosphere as well as for the severity of the historical matter, fitting perfectly with the Shakespearean stage of Folger Theatre. The overall mise-en-scene is simplistic in order to gear the audience’s attention toward the subtle conversations, in which the story’s twists and turns take place.

The royal rivalry is not simply a duet between the two strong female figures; it is also largely shaped by the male counselors around them. Here, Clifford is making an indirect statement regarding gender.

Much of the tension between the queens is intensified by the manipulations of their counselors. Despite their superior statuses, the queens fall prey to others’ machinations and remain dependent on men’s guidance. In these scenes, Clifford incorporates and dramatizes criticisms of female appearances and vulnerabilities in order to pinpoint the court’s sexism.

The play closes with Elizabeth’s hesitation to sign Mary’s death warrant. Despite all the threats that Mary represents, Elizabeth is unwilling to execute her cousin and enemy. The reason for her hesitation is unclear, and Twyford’s impeccable performance gives nothing away. Whether she is a merciless and cold queen insulated by her manipulative power or an ultimately tenderhearted queen struggling with her moral compass, Clifford seems to leave the question open to interpretation deliberately.

Richard Clifford’s “Mary Stuart” will be playing at Folger Theatre until March 8.

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