The Folger Theatre’s production of Mary Stuart is a tense, complex show, not for the faint of heart. Brimming with the visual delights of historically accurate Elizabethan sets and costumes, and armed with a new translation of the text into modern-day English; the show will likely trigger a variety of powerful reactions among theatre-goers.
The opening set of Mary Stuart wraps the stage in foreboding dungeon walls trapping both actors and nearby audience in the literal and psychological prison in which Elizabeth has imprisoned the titular character, her cousin and rival monarch, Mary Stuart. During the prison scenes, a haunting echoing effect persists throughout each character’s speech capable of provoking claustrophobia in the small theatre. The eerie atmosphere of the opening scenes sets a funereal tone for the entire play. Just as the characters are forced to contemplate the inconvenient fact of Mary’s existence, the play forces the audience to consider profound themes of politics and emotional trauma. Charged with political and ethical commentary, Mary Stuart proves once more that the Folger still embraces the atmosphere of its political neighborhood: located just across the street from the United States Capitol and Supreme Court buildings. Ultimately, the Folger asks its audience to consider where power truly resides when a government fears its people; a dramatic question touched upon in its recent production of Julius Caesar and asked outright by the Queen of England in Mary Stuart.
Costume designer Mariah Hale sticks closely to historically accurate costuming in this production, resonating with much of the drama in Mary Stuart stemming from its historical context. The juxtaposition of the elaborate Elizabethan garb of the actors and their modernized speech produces a jarring experience that can go either way for audience members. The most striking feature of this production may be Peter Oswald’s modern translation of Schiller’s 1800 original text. Oswald’s version is easier to understand, provoking lively audience response from giggles to gasps over the course of the night. However, it was undeniably strange to hear modern slang terms like “free-wheeling” and “the big man” in the context of the drama, especially coming from the mouth of Rajesh Bose’s magnificently cloaked Lord Burleigh and against the backdrop of Elizabeth’s gilded throne room. Whether or not the experience is elevated or muddied by the new translation remains for the theatre-goer to decide for themselves.
The acting, as can be expected of any Folger show, is absolutely top-notch. Kate Eastwood Norris and Holly Twyford play off each other royally as powerful female monarchs and alternate pathos with sass, breathing light into a dark and intricate story of international law, geopolitics, and espionage.
Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller and translated by Peter Oswald plays at the Folger Theatre through March 8. Tickets can be purchased by calling (202) 544-7077 or by visiting their website.
By Emma Bilski