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Mary and Elizabeth: More Stately Monarchs

Mary Stuart at the Loeb tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m.

IT IS A battle of women as well as monarchs--Mary Stuart, lovely and dignified in her imprisonment, and Elizabeth I, vain, cunning and as jealous of her rival's beauty as of her pretensions to power. In Mary Stuart, the two roles--the personal and political--are as irreconcilable as the two queens. In the end, the woman in each monarch must die to keep the English Protestant succession intact.

While Schiller's original text favors the romantic Scottish queen and casts Elizabeth as the villain, Stephen Spender's verse translation depicts both monarchs as victims of historical circumstance. If Elizabeth's decree obliges Mary to mount the scaffold, the Stuart queen has at least the consolation of dying surrounded by admirers and absolved from sin. Elizabeth, on the other hand, in her zeal to save appearances is finally condemned by them, retaining her crown only at the cost of losing the friendship and popular support that gave it meaning.

Robert Chapman's stately production of Mary Stuart succeeds handsomely in conveying the queen's dual tragedy, thanks to outstanding performances by Sarah Jane Lithgow and Laura Bartell in the leading roles. Stalking about her jail cell, villifying her jailers and judges with regal outrage, Lithgow's Mary Stuart dominates the first half of the play, outclassing every male actor in the show. Her controlled brilliance is more than matched, however, by Bartell's flamboyant portrayal of her English counterpart. Harsh, demanding, sometimes petty in her violent jealousies, Bartell's Elizabeth presents a clear dramatic contrast to Lithgow's more refined monarch.

This contrast is most sharply etched in the confrontation between the two outside Mary's prison. Here Elizabeth, riding whip in hand, is at her loudest and most vindictive. Gloating over her humbled rival, she is completely stunned by Mary's sudden shift from contrition to name-calling indignation--a shift which makes this scene a theatrical tour-de-force.

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The last two acts belong to Elizabeth. Agonizing over the demands of state, Bartell depicts a queen whose courtly assurance is only the surface complement to self-doubt and womanly frailty. The plot of Mary Stuart tilts the balance of sympathy in favor of the Scottish queen; Bartell's achievement lies not only in making Elizabeth too a sympathetic figure, but in suggesting that hers may in fact be the greater tragedy.

If royalty so completely dominates Mary Stuart, it's because the performances of the male actors range from adequate to downright awful. David Moore is befittingly old and quavering as Shrewsbury, the adviser who was right from the start, and Keith Cornelius is convincing enough as Paulet, Mary's incorruptible jailor. After that, however, it's all downhill.

Alan Stock delivers a solidly one-dimensional performance as Mortimer, a sentimental youth whose lusts power his desire to rescue Mary. Reciting his lines in an undeviating sing-song, he manages to mangle a relatively uncomplicated role.

Stock's utter lack of conviction is rivalled by Kerry Konrad's slightly less futile attempt at Burleigh. While Burleigh's narrow-minded concentration on protecting the Protestant succession and his eagerness for Mary's death make him a less than sympathetic figure, he should be played with some semblance of lordly dignity; he may be wrong, but, after all, he is an English peer. Expressing his frustration as petulance, always raising his voice instead of varying his tone, Konrad's Burleigh never seems quite at home in the Elizabethan court.

Although Paul Hornblower (Leicester) is the best actor of the three, his is in some ways the most disappointing performance. Caught between love and ambition, Leicester serves both queens, only to betray each in turn; petty and cowardly though he is, his waverings also make him a tragic figure. Unfortunately, Hornblower chooses to portray the earl as a supercilious and excessively obvious double-dealer whose inward writhings cause him more annoyance than pain. Hand on hips, he delights in running his tongue over his lips in a gesture that reduces him to the level of a snake. It's hard to imagine what either queen could see in such an effeminate courtier.

Mary Stuart is a static, talky play, and Chapman has done little to disturb its stateliness. Keeping the pace slow, he instead relies on the dramatic excitement generated by his two leads to give the play momentum. It's a strategy that works well when the queens are soliloquizing or confronting each other, but inevitably breaks down when the men take over.

Like most Loeb productions, Mary Stuart is technically impressive--from the simple, stylized sets to Elizabeth's jewel-encrusted costumes to the eloquent lighting. The final scene--Elizabeth's last hurrah--is superbly staged: the lights dim on each of the queen's advisers as they leave her one by one, until she sits alone, framed by a spotlight on her proud, lonely face. The effect is magnificent.

During their confrontation outside the prison gates, Mary accuses Elizabeth of hiding her sins behind "the false show of a virtuous-seeming face." Mary Stuart's sins--its slow pace and weak male leads--are right out in the open, but they fail to obscure the queenly virtue which illuminates the show.

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