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To kill a queen: Mary vs. Elizabeth in Schiller classic ‘Mary Stuart’ at Folger Theatre

Queen Elizabeth (Holly Twyford) holds court, receiving counsel from, left to right, the Earl Of Leicester (Cody Nickell), Lord Burleigh (Rajesh Bose), and the Earl of Shrewsbury (Craig Wallace) in “Mary Stuart.” (Teresa Wood)

It takes a lot of shady maneuvering to get the two queens of Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 “Mary Stuart” to the center of the chessboard. But when it finally happens, the showdown is deluxe. Romantic jealousy, religious friction and the fates of quarreling nations collide as England’s Protestant Queen Elizabeth and her prisoner, Scotland’s Catholic Queen Mary, go nose to nose.

In the intrigue-rich production at Folger Theatre, these rulers — and the women who play them — are studies in command. As Mary, jailed on suspicion of plotting to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth, Kate Eastwood Norris is hot and righteous, with a spine of shining steel. Holly Twyford's Elizabeth, though, is cool and canny. She eyes her advisers with suspicion, hushing them with no more than a lifted finger as she looks for a way out of her problem with Mary.

It's a dilemma that could easily topple a monarch. Can Elizabeth dare to pardon her Catholic rival, who is detained on questionable evidence? Or must the dangerous Mary, whose ties to Catholic Europe and plausible claim to the English throne inspire zealots to target Elizabeth, be executed? How can Elizabeth choose without getting burned by some sort of blowback? It's a delicious puzzle.

“What you keep unseen will cost you nothing,” Twyford’s shifty Elizabeth murmurs as she tries to finesse her options.

Norris’s proud Mary, chin lifted in defiant argument, and Twyford’s complicated yet powerful Elizabeth are rock-solid as the core of Richard Clifford’s dark, majestic staging. The story unfolds in front of a soaring black stone wall (Mary’s prison) that gives way to the glowing gold of Elizabeth’s palace and a foggy glade where the entirely fictitious meeting takes place. Tony Cisek’s set creates an imposing yet furtive world that’s as well suited for Schiller’s centerpiece speeches as for clandestine side conferences.

The black-clad figures in orbit around the queens are, for the most part, sharply etched. (The costumes, which include a simple gray and white outfit for Mary and an architecturally full gown for Elizabeth, are by Mariah Hale.) Nancy Robinette is fiercely loyal as Mary’s longtime nurse, while Rajesh Bose oozes malevolence as the caped Lord Burleigh, who argues doggedly for execution.

The conflicted middle is anchored by Cody Nickell as the dashing Earl of Leicester, who nimbly angles for both women and plays each side. Louis Butelli is a persuasive voice for justice as Mary's English guardian, and Craig Wallace plays the Earl of Shrewsbury (one of Elizabeth's senior advisers) with straightforward nobility that stands out in this crowd.

With all these fine elements in place, it’s surprising (though far from fatal) that the show’s tone wobbles as it hits the homestretch. The language in Peter Oswald’s version of Schiller’s script — the same one used in the 2005 London production that moved to Broadway in 2009 — has offhand modern streaks that Clifford and the cast don’t always govern. Flickers of nervous comedy and a patch of awkward melodrama seep in at the edges, with Paul-Emile Cendron’s boiling turn as Mary’s young acolyte, Mortimer, undercutting a subplot about extremism that ought to bristle with modern overtones. These slips leave the audience a touch off-balance.

Even so, this "Mary Stuart" more than holds the stage for its more than 21/2 hours. The vernacular is sheer Washingtonian — the righteous speeches, the flinty debates, the double-talk and spin. In its depiction of charismatic but isolated leaders grappling with the demands of ego and diplomacy, it easily satisfies our craving for political stars.

Mary Stuart

By Friedrich Schiller; new version by Peter Oswald. Directed by Richard Clifford. Lights, Rob Denton; music composition and sound design, Patrick Calhoun. With Ray Dooley, Jeff Keogh, Todd Scofield and Nathan Winkelstein. Through March 8 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit $40-$75. About 2 hours and 40 minutes.