For theatergoers half-starved for substance, there’s nothing more gratifying than a full meal such as the three nourishing hours of Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart.” The play, now 200 years old, can still hold an audience in silent attention through two long acts, and it does so in a crisp, mercifully unmodernized new translation by Michael Feingold, abetted by Carey Perloff’s straightforward staging. The cast projects the text with vigorous clarity, and the play makes a strong impact, readily overriding any lack of dramatic maturity displayed by some of the actors.
Perloff originally directed this “Mary Stuart” at her American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 1998. In Boston, with a mostly new cast, she and Feingold have “continued to refine the text and elements of the production.” Feingold, Perloff and the Huntington are to be thanked for bringing it to Boston this demanding piece of theater, which is seldom produced these days.
True, the cast does not live up to that of the Phoenix Theater’s acclaimed Off Broadway airing in New York in 1957. Directed by Tyrone Guthrie, and with a new translation by Jean Stock Goldstone and John Reich, its cast was headed by Irene Worth (Mary), Eva Le Gallienne (Elizabeth I) and Douglas Campbell (Leicester). A couple of years later this production, mostly recast, toured, playing Boston. Thus it hasn’t been seen professionally in this city since 1960.
Some members of the current cast just don’t have the stature, presence or ability to fully cope with such a piece of classical theater. Several simply perform in too modern an idiom. This is particularly true of Firdous Bamji, whose Mortimer is gauchely out of period. Two of the most resonant performances are given by senior members of the cast, Cristine McMurdo-Wallis as Mary’s nurse-companion and Richard Ooms as Shrewsbury.
Caroline Lagerfelt is repeating her Elizabeth from San Francisco. She projects a wry, ironic persona in a purposely studied way. Her voice is none too beautiful, but that may be part of her overall characterization. Hers is not a towering Elizabeth, but she nevertheless holds her own through the kaleidoscope of emotions Schiller gives her to encompass. New to Mary, Rene Augesen is a young, fair Queen of Scots who is at her most compelling in her confrontation scene with Elizabeth on the grounds of her prison.
Also repeating from San Francisco is Marco Barricelli as the Earl of Leicester, in Schiller’s hands a thoroughly duplicitous creature wooing both Elizabeth and Mary at the same time. Barricelli certainly has a strong physical presence, but his Leicester is somehow too transparent for us to truly believe that both women would be susceptible to him. Richard Ziman is fine as Lord Burleigh, not least because he has the look of British royalty, notably Edward VII.
The play is more fiction than fact, particularly the famous Mary/Elizabeth confrontation that apparently never took place. In the play Mary goes to the gallows fairly promptly, whereas she actually languished in prison for nearly 19 years. Schiller was more interested in writing a potent piece of theater rather than merely aping history, and his play’s potency remains intact.
It is aided by Ralph Funicello’s set and Deborah Dryden’s costumes. The former uses a series of tall, stark, rough-cast square pillars that he maneuvers around the stage to suggest claustrophobic or royal interiors and a sunny exterior. At one point he adds a blood-red rear drop. And at the play’s end, with Elizabeth alone onstage front-and-center, he places a transparent scrim emblazoned with a portrait of her in front of her.
Dryden’s costumes for the women run the gamut from plain black or white for Mary to Elizabeth’s elaborate dresses. They are very much in period, whereas for the men the designer has opted for mixing some more modern elements with period capes and gowns. She does so with such subtlety that the mixture never seems anachronistic. David Lang’s music, sung, chanted and played on an organ, adds to the rich atmosphere.
There are a few questionable moments in Perloff’s staging, such as the casual lounging in Elizabeth’s throne by Mortimer and Leicester, and too much touching of Elizabeth by other characters. But overall she has served the play most ably, as has Feingold.