T here's a touchy moment in the 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love when Gwyneth Paltrow's Viola de Lesseps is on the verge of being unmasked as a woman posing as a man in order to play a woman on the all-male Elizabethan stage. Happily for her, someone in a similar situation happens to be in the audience: the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth, herself. "I know something of a woman in a man's profession," says Judi Dench's steely old monarch as she deftly countermands the evidence of everybody's eyes. "Yes, by God, I do know about that."
Twenty years have passed since the scene was filmed, and almost exactly 415 since Elizabeth's reign ended (March 24, 1603), but I think it's safe to say we still haven't gotten over the notion of a woman in a so-called man's profession. Not by a long shot. I mean, never mind #MeToo—PBS is in the third season of a series on Queen Victoria and Netflix has one on QEII.
Which makes the current Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Schiller's Mary Stuart at once thoroughly zeitgeisty and a little subversive. Subversive because, as much as it has to say about the difficulties a woman might encounter trying to navigate the pitiless corridors of power, the play is also very clear in demonstrating that she may take to it rather better than anybody expected.
Friedrich Schiller published Maria Stuart in 1801, and Peter Oswald has written an English-language "version" that premiered in 2005. Oswald's fluid, wryly funny script is the one on view at Chicago Shakespeare. It's a hell of a yarn even if you're being historically accurate, and Schiller/Oswald aren't.
Mary Stuart is the one also known to history as Mary, Queen of Scots. A Catholic cousin of Elizabeth, she ascended the Edinburgh throne in the company of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who turned up dead one day in 1567. Mary then married the man who was generally thought to have killed him, igniting a scandal that led to her forced abdication. She fled to England, supposing she'd be safe under Elizabeth's protection. She was mistaken. Elizabeth feared Mary's arguably stronger claim to the English throne as well as her potential appeal to disgruntled Catholics (including foreign kings) anxious to oust Elizabeth's Protestant regime. The queen therefore put Mary under a luxurious form of house arrest that lasted close to two decades.
As Schiller's telling starts Mary has been implicated in yet another Catholic conspiracy against the crown, despite her confinement (which is depicted as harsh by her nurse, involving pewter dishware that a "duchess would sniff at"). When her trial ends in a guilty verdict, various supporters swing into action—or into plotting, anyway—notably a suave, canny, profoundly politic courtier who's served Elizabeth but loved Mary and a young hothead who's secretly turned against his hard-core Protestant upbringing. It's something of a surprise to find out who these two intriguers are, so I won't describe them any further except to say—and here I'm assuming you won't read your program too carefully before the show—Tim Decker is marvelous as the courtier, allowing him wisdom and a conscience along with Machiavellian smarts; Andrew Chown's hothead, meanwhile, gets a fascinating speech about his conversion to Catholicism that lays bare the irrational power of art to transform us.
Unfolding on a set designed by Andromache Chalfant to be as brutal or sweet as it needs to be, Jenn Thompson's witty staging features plenty of other vivid performances, from Kevin Gudahl's as the bluff, honest knight charged with guarding Mary to Robert Jason Jackson's as the Earl of Shrewsbury, the only Christian among droves of sectarians, to David Studwell's as the hubristic high treasurer Lord Burleigh. Thompson and company are great at limning the circles of hell Schiller created especially for government servants.
But the whole thing finally comes down to the two queens. Apparently much like the actual historical figure, K.K. Moggie's Mary is an old-style sovereign, mortified by her situation yet standing on the notion that divine right makes her immune to prosecution. She's an old-style woman too: the men who follow her fall crazy in love. Kellie Overbey's Elizabeth, on the other hand, gives us a wholly different sort of being—one who helps us understand what made the original so monumental. She has her jealousies and her snits, of course, but more than anything she's a leader in the modern sense, followed because she exercises power, and therefore capable of the great cruelties of pragmatism. Even her hesitations are strategic. No need to qualify this Elizabeth as a woman in a man's profession. She's simply a pro. v