(l to r) K.K. Moggie and Kellie Overbey in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s ‘Mary Stuart.’ (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
By Becky Sarwate
In some of the best-loved and most successful stories – fiction and non – the lines between protagonist and antagonist characters are blurry. To call up a recent, accessible example, the runaway smash film Black Panther offers a use case.
Audiences are meant to root for Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, the film’s titular superhero, but it’s Michael B. Jordan’s sinisterly named Erik Killmonger who wants to leverage Wakanda’s material riches and natural resources to better the lives of all African descendants. His globalist worldview in a 21st Century where black bodies are still hunted and economic opportunity is stratified by color feels much more substantive than evil opposition to T’Challa’s “good.” The ability to understand and empathize with both men makes the narrative much more interesting than crude stereotypes would allow.
It may seem an odd transition to move from Black Panther to a dissection of historical dramatization, featuring two 16th Century female monarchs warring over an imperialist empire, but stick with me. Because the most important feature of playwright Peter Oswald’s Mary Stuart, and the thread that ties back to Ryan Coogler’s Panther screenplay, is the work’s name.
Per the Chicago Shakespeare Theater press release regarding its latest production, “Two extraordinary women clash in a no-holds-barred power play over the right to rule. Queen Elizabeth I must decide the fate of her imprisoned cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who is accused of treason.”
Change the ethnicity, century, gender and state of reality for the characters in the quote above, and you’ve basically got yourself a Marvel movie. The rich story of rivalry, power, paternal and religious bifurcation that ends with The Virgin Queen’s 45-year reign over the British Empire is graphic-novel ready. Mary Stuart’s production team, led by Director Jenn Thompson, takes full advantage of three-dimensional opportunities to create an otherworldly visual experience.
Textbooks teach us that the Catholic, usurping Mary, played here by K.K. Moggie, was a no good, very bad woman, nicknamed “Bloody Mary” to put a razor-sharp point on it. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was virtuous, unblemished, a dedicated ruler who chose country over personal passions. Oswald knows the talking points well, enough to turn them on their heads.
Kellie Overbey’s Elizabeth I checks all the right boxes, and the actress turns in a fine performance. The daughter of Henry VIII via Anne Boleyn is serious, deliberate and eminently well-dressed. Costume Designer Linda Cho achieves an impossible feat in Mary Stuart, creating sumptuous, vibrant, period-appropriate pieces that actually look wearable, and are certainly covetable. Until the production’s opening night, I would not have believed the Elizabethan ruff ready for a comeback. Unfortunately, the queen’s wardrobe far exceeds the interestingness of its wearer. This Elizabeth is nervous, passive-aggressive, fractious, unforgiving and sanctimonious to an intolerable degree.
Meanwhile, Moggle’s Mary is the gal with whom you want to grab a drink. Sure she’s a religious fanatic, admitted murderess and mercenary crown usurper, but playwright Oswald rewards her with the more exuberant and complicated dialogue. It is his Mary who engenders interest, loyalty and passion, not for the tiara on her head, but exactly because of her dubious morals, imperfect sense of responsibility and stubborn commitment to her own version of the truth. While it may be a step too far to label the character sympathetic, let’s just say it’s easy to suspend disbelief and hope for a different outcome than we know to expect.
The storytelling parallels, the dramatic tension involved in understanding “right” while secretly lusting after “wrong,” are what brought my thoughts to Black Panther as I exited the theatre after last week’s premiere. Unfortunately, the corollary does not pull through to the pacing and denouement of the respective works. At two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, Mary Stuart is unreasonably long considering stretches of tedious dialogue that fail to move the action forward. I’ve no objection to sitting for almost three hours when fully engaged, but Thompson would have been wise to exhibit more editorial leadership.
And since audiences, ultimately, endure no real suspense about the ending, as Mary entertains with her colorful flaws, the final scene feels incredibly ham-fisted, if technically impressive. I don’t believe in spoilers, so will say no more. However Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Mary Stuart, like its namesake, is an imperfect experience.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
800 E Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL
Through April 15
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic and blogger. On March 29, 2018, her first book, Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team, will be published by Eckhartz Press. She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.