By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; C10
Though Elizabeth I has Mary, Queen of Scots exactly where she wants her -- in lockup -- it's Elizabeth who seems the persecuted soul in Washington Shakespeare Company's impressively disciplined "Mary Stuart." Friedrich Schiller's story of the vain and competitive queens, each in her way a prisoner of the other's will, unfolds in director Colin Hovde's nimble, modern-dress staging as penetrating political psychodrama.
Mary, the golden girl adored by the Catholic population, is held under guard by her cousin, the Protestant Elizabeth, whose insecurities spill out over the course of Schiller's 1800 masterwork. Factions in the divided realm are spoiling for Mary to take the crown from Elizabeth, who as a result is equivocating over whether to lop off Mary's head: Would the execution bolster her reign, or undermine it?
It's juicy stuff. The delicious dramatic crux is that the more precarious Mary's prospects for survival become, the more unnerved Elizabeth appears. The dynamic is conveyed in sequences of Sara Barker's Elizabeth and Heather Haney's Mary conferring with trusted (and sometimes, not so trustworthy) aides and allies, and culminates in a scene out of the playwright's imagination: an arranged encounter between the queens that sputters disastrously out of control.
The head-to-head antipathies of "Mary Stuart" affirm the impression of Mary and Elizabeth as irresistible roles. The young actresses playing them here, in the company's new home in Rosslyn's Artisphere, get the fundamentals right, even if the portrayals tend toward the one-note: Haney's Mary is almost preternaturally serene, a woman called on by God to torment the conscience of Barker's Elizabeth, who in turn is evoked as a neurotic fence-straddler, unsettled by the slightest hint of threat.
Haney is adept at projecting Mary's martyr complex and Barker ably reflects the imperious aspect of Elizabeth's nature, apparent in every cinematic encounter with the Virgin Queen. Subtler facets of personality await further exploration on this occasion: A few more cracks in Haney's bravado would be welcome, as would some tenderizing of Barker's eternal brittleness. You crave something more in the way of illumination of the women behind the royal masks.
By and large, however, Hovde hews pleasingly to the persuasive guidelines of Schiller's script, in an adaptation by Peter Oswald that was also used in a recent Broadway version starring Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer. Tobias Harding's set in Artisphere's black-box space -- in which the play runs in repertory with "Richard III" -- works terrifically: It's a stark runway, bordered on three sides by the audience.
A dozen or so wooden chairs brandished by the ensemble are deployed like Legos to conjure a cell, a throne or a park. Heather Lockard's costumes -- a severe, angular look for Elizabeth; a softer silhouette for Mary -- are wholly suited to the production's often muted emotionality.
Oswald's translation preserves the complexly rendered intuitiveness of Schiller's characters, virtually all of whom demonstrate the finely tuned survival instincts necessary to endure at court. The play is about keeping a step ahead of one's friends and adversaries; neophytes such as Joshua Drew's clueless William Davison, the functionary to whom Elizabeth hands Mary's signed death warrant, don't know how to read the queen's ambiguous signals, and therefore pay a terrible price. Of all the characters, only Mary's nurse, portrayed with a striking overlay of compassion by K. Clare Johnson, seems to value a monarch's neck more than her own.
The earls and lords who make a career of divining Elizabeth's will -- and in some cases of playing the two queens against each other -- are sturdily represented by Lee Liebeskind, Dave Bobb and most magnetically by Joe Brack as the queen's favorite, the duplicitous Robert Dudley. By virtue of conversing with Mary behind Elizabeth's back, Dudley engages in a dangerous game, and in Brack's suave and self-assured performance, the evening's best, the character is enveloped in a rewarding air of mystery.
Alex Vaughan's headstrong Mortimer provides an incautious counterpoint to Dudley's slipperiness; his expressions of ardor for the off-limits Mary are so reckless that some in the audience may find his audacious cheerleading a laughing matter. Still, Vaughan does a commendable job, embodying the sense of how fan worship can metamorphose into sexual desire.
In Hovde's hands, Schiller's drama remains an engrossing, imaginatively fictionalized account of the endgame for a titled woman with designs on another's kingdom. Fatal attractions of all types sure do make for good theater.
by Friedrich Schiller, adapted by Peter Oswald. Directed by Colin Hovde. Lighting, John Burkland; sound, Jeffrey Herrmann. With Slice Hicks, Chris Mancusi, Tony Bullock, Tyler Herman. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Dec. 12 at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Visit http://www.boxofficetickets.com/wsc or call 800-494-8497.