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. 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. 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 has a strong physical presence, but his Leicester is somehow too transparent for us to believe that both women would be susceptible to him.
The play is more fiction than fact; Schiller was more interested in writing a potent piece of theater rather than merely aping history, and his play’s potency remains intact.