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THEATER REVIEW Schiller's Mary Stuart
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Peter Oswald, after Friedrich Schiller

At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier. Tickets: 312-595-5600;; $48-$88. Runs through: April 15

Mary Stuart became Queen of Scots when six days old in 1542 and was overthrown by Scots nobles 25 years later in favor of her infant son, and a helluva lot of water flowed over the dam in between.

Mary—who was Catholic—fled to England expecting her Protestant first cousin, Queen Elizabeth, to assist her. But Elizabeth knew Mary had claims to the English crown equally as strong as her own, and knew that English and Scots Catholics endlessly plotted her assassination in favor of Mary. So Elizabeth kept Mary prisoner for 20 years, under increasingly severe conditions, and then executed her. Mary was 45. They never met face to face, but what if they had? Such a face-off is the centerpiece of this play, written in 1800 as part of the literary movement known as Weimar Classicism.

Schiller's five-act, blank-verse drama rarely is produced today in its original form and length, which is all the more reason to welcome this 2005 adaptation in forceful, lucid and witty modern English. Mixing prose and verse, adapter Peter Oswald manages to extract small ironic and sarcastic laughs Schiller probably never intended, but which help modernize the play and leaven its somber tone.

It's a flawlessly acted production under director Jenn Thompson, with vibrant work by K. K. Moggie as Mary and Kellie Overbey as Elizabeth, supported by a cast of top veteran actors—Kevin Gudahl, Barbara Robertson, David Studwell, Patrick Clear and Tim Decker among them. In the German Sturm und Drang tradition, to which Weimar Classicism was a successor, passions can run very high but also require absolute clarity of speech, which this cast delivers.

Mary Stuart remains, however, a somber affair not only in its literary and philosophical tone, but also in this physical production in which the green, red and lavender gowns worn by the queens are the only splashes of color within Linda Cho's otherwise gray-brown ( yet handsome ) costumes, and against Andromache Chalfant's gray-tone monolithic scenic design.

Be warned: The hour-plus Act I is a long haul requiring attentive listening, and is dense with expository information and lacking in action. Is it entirely Schiller's fault ( explaining English history for his German audience ) or partly Oswald's? Action-packed by comparison, Act II offers queens in confrontation, a murder plot, a counterplot and near-rape of Mary! It's pure melodrama except some of it ( but not all ) is factual.

As much a work of political philosophy as history, Mary Stuart underlines the treacherous concept of plausible deniability famously utilized by Elizabeth in condemning Mary, and also the notion that concepts of justice alter with political culture and circumstances. Both queens were substantially trapped by political forces swirling around them, and a sisterly meeting wouldn't have helped.

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