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BWW Reviews: MARY STUART Is a Fascinating Political Drama at Northwest Classical

I don't know about you, but for me, when I'm attending a historical drama, it takes me a while to get used to the language. Whether it's Shakespeare or not, a lot of times, I just can't dive right in and get the hang of who the characters are, why they're fighting, and how each of them relates to each other. I can sit there and read the program before the show, I can even do research before attending the performance, but usually it takes until the middle of Act One before things finally click into place and I understand what's going on. That's no one's fault but mine.

With Mary Stuart, however, you really don't have to understand the historical underpinnings to enjoy the play. I never completely understood the basis of the squabbling between Mary Stuart and her cousin Elizabeth I, but it didn't matter. Two powerful women were fighting with each other, and that's the basis for a lot of great drama, be it Dynasty, Gone with the Wind, or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Elizabeth is the queen, of course, and she's imprisoned Mary in order to solidify her hold on England. (That much I figured out.) Mary has her loyal nurse Hannah by her side, and two of Elizabeth's court, Leicester and Mortimer, also claim to love Mary and try to hatch plans to get her out of prison and rightfully restored to the throne. Leicester feigns love for Elizabeth - quite well - and looks at a long-term solution, while the young, hotheaded Mortimer aims for a quicker, more violent plan.

Northwest Classical is amazingly good at cramming massive historical plays into their tiny Shoebox Theatre, and here director Elizabeth Huffman has worked miracles. The trappings are minimal, a series of boxlike structures, a throne, and a desk that are moved about to create the various settings. The play never stops moving, with scenes blending into each other, delineated by changes of light, moody projections on the wall, and pounding music. Costume designer Russell Terwelp has provided appropriately regal clothing for the queens, while the other characters are dressed in modern suits and ties; they resemble the Cabinet, except for Mortimer, who wears a long black coat more suited to a Western. The effect is to show how isolated the women were, how their attempts to hold power were controlled by the men around them. And while the play is long, it never drags.

Lorraine Bahr is purely regal as Elizabeth, her posture just right, her accent just this side of Judi Dench. She wears the period outfits and white makeup as if born to them, and she never lets up her intensity until the very end of the play. You understand why the men fear her - and why they want her. As Mary Stuart, Luisa Sermol is done in by her accent, a Scots-French mixture that (according to the program) is historically accurate, but with her dark hair and tempestuous manner, she often comes across like the heroine of a telenovela. However, you empathize with her tremendously, and by the end, when Mary accepts her fate, Sermol's grandeur disappears and she becomes more human.

Joe Healy is a marvelous Leicester, subtly managing to convey his weakness while attempting to manipulate those around him. David Bodin as court advisor Paulet is quite effective, especially when threatening people, and Gary Powell is deeply sinister as Burleigh. Rob Harrison has some great moments - especially in his last scene - as Shrewsbury, while Chris Porter and Anthony Green play a number of roles, all very well; Green is just wonderful as a clerk who tries to do the right thing and realizes too late that he's been set up. And Cate Garrison does lovely work as Hannah, tenderhearted under a frosty Scots exterior.

The standout, for me, was Phillip Whiteman as Mortimer. He has to convey a wide range of emotions and attitudes, and he manages to shift quickly from scene to scene, promising one thing to Elizabeth, then professing his love to Mary. Whiteman is easily the youngest of the cast members, and his character is the most passionate, but he never loses his regal bearing or lets his energy overwhelm his control.

There are a few moments when the actors are required to perform soliloquies, and sometimes they address them to the audience directly. (Mr. Whiteman, for instance, spoke several lines right to me, just inches away.) It's amazingly intimate, and it draws you into the drama even more - another way in which the director uses the tiny space to her advantage. There are also a couple of dance moments (at the beginning and end of the performance) that work less well; I couldn't understand what was being conveyed in either.

Still, Mary Stuart is an effective drama about two women who fought their way through the 16th century, and it's never a dull one. It might be good to bone up on your English history before you go...or perhaps it's just more fun to go in knowing nothing and just enjoy the show. Either way, it's definitely worth seeing.

From This Author - Patrick Brassell