BWW Review: KING ELIZABETH Rules Triumphant at The Gamm
The Gamm closes its season on a ringing note of triumph with an excellent staging of King Elizabeth, Tony Estrella's adaptation of Mary Stuart. Estrella, Artistic Director at The Gamm, set himself an ambitious undertaking in remaking so well-known a dramatic work. His adaptation respects Friedrich Schiller's famed Mary Stuart while bringing to it a fresh voice and perspective that make King Elizabeth an impressive, truly outstanding theatrical experience. Estrella also directed this piece and his vision results in a tight, fast-paced, completely absorbing production.
Schiller's script ultimately favored its title character, with Mary emerging a distinctly saint-like figure and Elizabeth painted as aloof and isolated. King Elizabeth balances that bias, presenting Mary and Elizabeth as more fully rounded characters. Both women have real flaws and each demonstrates praiseworthy strengths. Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I loom large in the historical record, legendary figures in a royal struggle of unprecedented proportions. King Elizabeth recalls that, in the midst of the thorniest political intrigues and shadiest power plays, these royal characters were real people, subject to the doubts and fears, hopes and hurts common to the human experience.
The Gamm's remarkable cast does full justice to this complex narrative, delivering a spellbinding performance from curtain to curtain. And no one could ask for more ideal interpreters of Elizabeth and Mary than Jeanine Kane and Marianna Bassham. Each time these women step into the footlights, they prove over and again that they are among the most talented actors in New England.
Kane is a queenly Elizabeth. Her stance and bearing establish the confident, regal poise of the celebrated monarch, and even her offhand gestures carry with them a real sense of authority and power. This is as much an expression of royal character as it is a means of survival in the political arena. Elizabeth stands surrounded by male courtiers and advisers who hold very decided opinions on the separation of masculine and feminine spheres and what constitutes essential qualities of leadership. When gendered commentary arises at court, Kane's Elizabeth offers a cutting rejoinder containing just the right tone of command (and a pinch of sarcasm) as to remind the assembly she is the "King" of England. Kane also sensitively explores the queen's human side. She delivers Elizabeth's second-act monologue, agonizing over Mary's death warrant, with breathtaking intensity and brings quiet vulnerability to those moments Elizabeth converses informally in trusted company.
Bassham's portrayal of Mary Stuart is brilliantly layered in every word and glance. Nearly two decades of imprisonment have taken their toll on Mary's constitution, and Bassham infuses this weariness of mind and body into her characterization. Restless, caged movements accompany Mary's conversations as tremors involuntarily seize her hands. Bassham brings eloquence and complete sincerity to each of Mary's speeches, and her Mary never loses an aura of royalty, even when at her most humbled and abased. Bassham expresses Mary's desperation when pleading for her life and freedom, takes time and space to explore her heartbreak when she is betrayed, and frankly conveys her exhaustion from years of fruitless petitioning. During Mary and Elizabeth's one face-to-face meeting, Bassham allows Mary's defenses to crack and crumble by slow degrees until the fiery Queen of Scots, long subdued but not defeated, simmers blazingly to the surface.
The Gamm, as always, boasts a wealth of talent on its stage. Tom Oakes is completely wonderful as Talbot, the aged Earl of Shewsbury. He displays unfeigned tenderness toward Mary and her plight, offers sound, fatherly counsel in Elizabeth's court, and impressively rises to righteous indignation as events unfold in the second act. Justin Blanchard plays Leicester as a man divided. While Leicester is undoubtedly in love with Mary, Blanchard's portrayal suggests Leicester retains a genuinely friendly affection for Elizabeth as well.
Cliff Odle depicts Burleigh as the ideal military leader, a man of action who can influence and intimidate the royal courtiers with the mere lifting of an eyebrow or change in tone of voice. Jeff Church plays Mary's would-be rescuer, the zealous, ambitious Mortimer, with spot-on intensity and animation. Richard Noble brings great dignity and fairness to Mary's jailer/protector, Amyas Paulet, and Wendy Overly is all motherly tenderness as Mary's nurse, Hannah, delivering scenes certain to tug the heartstrings. Clara Weishahn embodies utter efficiency as Davison, Elizabeth's newly installed secretary, until her cool facade crumbles (to hilarious effect) when the queen entrusts Davison with Mary's execution warrant. Weishahn also has a magnificent singing voice, clearly distinguishable even in the larger chorus as the cast performs "God Save the Queen." Alec Thibodeau, rounding out the company, nimbly switches between the roles of ambassador, pope, and priest throughout the production.
Modern-day costuming gives King Elizabeth a timeless air. Amanda Downing Carney selected wonderful pieces to support each character, from Elizabeth and Davison's power suits to Mary's simple white shift. Michael McGarty's otherwise spare set features two double doors, each covered over with the likeness of one of the queens. A few sturdy crates and props transform the space, and imagination supplies the rest when partnered with David Roy's lighting effects. Roy plays with light and shadow, suggesting the intrigues of court politics, Mary's shrinking horror at a plot to assassinate Elizabeth, and fresh morning sunshine on the day of the hunt.
King Elizabeth makes for wonderful theater. The narrative is equally enjoyable and thought-provoking, the cast impeccable -- this production is a crowning achievement for The Gamm.
King Elizabeth runs at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI through May 28, 2017. Ticket prices are $44 and $52. To purchase tickets, contact the box office at (401) 723-4266 or visit The Gamm online at www.gammtheatre.org.
Photos by Peter Goldberg