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Mary Stuart — Philadelphia Artists Collective at Broad Street Ministry

Mary Stuart -- interiorAudiences throughout time have adored battles of titans. Add royalty, and claim to the British throne to the mix, and fewer such contretemps stir interest more than the conflict between Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots.

In his 1800 play, “Mary Stuart,” Friedrich Schiller raises the dramatic ante by imagining a meeting between Elizabeth and Mary, cousins who were both legitimate queens in the their own right and who shared the same great-grandparents. The incidents leading to that fictional encounter, and the reasons for the mutual enmity between the English and Scottish monarchs, are clearly and deftly defined by Schiller and the Philadelphia Artists Collective which is presenting “Mary Stuart” at the Broad Street Ministry through April 19.

Schiller’s title may suggest sympathy towards Mary, but the playwright and PAC show a much more even hand in depicting the beset queens. Mary garners sympathy because her life is at stake. She is a figure of tragedy, a woman who became a queen in infancy but who did not actually rule Scotland during the last 28 years of her 45-year life and who was imprisoned by Elizabeth in Fotheringay Castle, on English soil, for almost two decades. On more than one occasion, she presented a dangerous threat to Elizabeth and waged campaigns , based on religion and legitimacy of the Tudor blood line, to dethrone her cousin. Mary and her supporters stood for a Catholic England as re-established by Elizabeth’s sister, Mary I, and declared Elizabeth a bastard because her father, Henry VIII’s, divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was not recognized by the Pope, and his marriage to Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was considered by Catholics to be illegitimate.

Elizabeth, by contrast, seems high and mighty. “More than seems, madam!” She is. In Schiller’s telling, Mary is a nuisance to Elizabeth. She takes her mind off of more important matters, such as the Armada Spain in preparing to unleash to attack England. Elizabeth is resistant to hearing about her cousin or her plight, a situation Elizabeth believes Mary earned. Although Mary is often treated romantically by history and, certainly, by literature, Elizabeth, while imprisoning her, in a castle with servants, mind you, may rate some credit for having preserved Mary’s life in 1569 by giving her some refuge. Mary entered England that year as a supplicant to Elizabeth after being stripped of the Scottish throne by nobles in her own country. France, where Mary grew up and reigned as queen for a year, may have been a wiser choice, but she chose England and in many ways, sealed her fate. She is, as I’ve said, a true figure of tragedy.

Neither Schiller nor Dan Hodge, in his production for PAC, fail to see the drama in the Elizabeth-Mary story. Schiller provides a strong framework for a theater company to show the desperation of Mary and the hauteur of Elizabeth, and Hodge and his actors capitalize on it, in particular Charlotte Northeast as Mary, Nathan Foley as her main adversary, Lord Burleigh, and Joshua Kachnycz as the double agent, Mortimer. Hodge and company offer a strong, clear production that makes the confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth exciting and shows what leads Mary to tragedy while depicting the logic Elizabeth has on her side.

Charlotte Northeast as Mary Stuart, and Krista Apple-Hodge, as Elizabeth, each make a case for her character’s stance. For Northeast’s Mary, winning the higher regard of Elizabeth is a matter of life or death. She believes that if she could present her argument to stay alive to Elizabeth in person, she could persuade the English monarch to pardon her and even embrace her as a cousin and political ally. Mary denies her role in a a plot that threatened Elizabeth’s life to open the path for Mary to ascend to the Virgin Queen’s throne. She says the incriminating Babington letters were forgeries and frauds and longs to plead her case directly to her cousin.

She has people helping her to attain this audience. Kachnycz, charming as the adroitly duplicitous Mortimer, carries letters from Mary to high officials in London, most particularly the Lord Leicester, Elizabeth’s favorite and the man she came closest to wedding. Mary’s goal is to meet Elizabeth. She sees this as her last chance for mortal survival and is determined to have that chance.

Schiller and Northeast make it difficult not to extend some sympathy to Mary. Northeast plays her as being demure and resigned in middle age to see out her days at Fotheringay, with the hope that at some time, the castle will cease to be a prison and become her home.

Mary Stuart -- interior 2Of course, Northeast’s Mary is given to rages and flights of majesty. From her earliest memory, she has been a queen. She understands her confinement but, when piqued, considers it an outrage. Although her position is not supported by enough nobles with armies to make a stand, Mary firmly believes she has as much a right, if not a greater right, to the English monarchy as Elizabeth does, Elizabeth whose sister , Mary, mewed her in the Tower of London, and whose mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed for treachery.

Northeast is adept at playing the many moods of Mary, but she is cleverest at portraying Mary as a reasonable, likeable woman whose breeding shows and who convincingly explains her various intrigues and romances as the élan of a spirited young woman, and girl, who had passion and emotion and was not eager to remain a virgin or forgo the vigor and ardor of youth.

Katherine Fritz’s costumes for the PAC production are splendid throughout, appropriate to character and well-made as befits queens and courtiers, but her choice for Mary’s garb at Fotheringay is particularly astute and witty. She and Hodge have dressed Mary in black and white, a white long-sleeved blouse that leads into a plain black bodice and flowing skirt, very plain and very much a symbol of repentance and renunciation of vanity.

Of course, Mary may not be that strategic. Her wardrobe may be supervised by the diligent Paulet, the nobleman Elizabeth’s court has assigned to oversee matters at Fotheringay, and therefore, in actuality, Mary’s jailor. For PAC, John Lopes plays Paulet with dignity that combines a sense of rigid, meticulous duty with some  honest affection for his captive, no matter how willful or complaining she can be.

Mary, as you gather, is complex, and Charlotte Northeast plays every nuance of her complexity. She wins the PAC audience as Mary gains favor with the people who surround her, even the suspicious Paulet.

One she doesn’t impress is Nathan Foley’s Burleigh, a politician and tactician of the highest caliber who sees Elizabeth’s best interest as well as, if not better than, she does and who is quick to make a decision and execute business with efficient dispatch.

Foley, who made impressions in PAC’s “Timon of Athens” and Lantern’s “Emma,” is remarkably strong and staunch as Burleigh. Schiller writes a character that would be formidable in any circumstance. Foley portrays him with ready intelligent that shows in his bright, never-to-be-gulled eyes and confidently grinning impression.

Foley’s Burleigh is a realist who takes pride in his ability to see through  a situation and come up with the most sensible course of action from Elizabeth’s point of view. He is unbending but always courtly. Even when he must be firm and insistent, he shows the politeness and politesse of a diplomat. Foley’s Burleigh is the colleague you want on your side. His perspicacity and cunning always prevail, and he can accomplish what others are loath to do or ambivalent about doing.

Other close advisors to Elizabeth may speak with conviction. Certainly Leicester has her ear, as does the Earl of Shrewsbury and the persuasive Mortimer, but Burleigh dominates, and Nathan Foley, in a performance that makes one think of Henry VIII, makes it seem obvious that he should.

Confrontation is direct in Hodge’s production. The audience is seated two rows deep against the four walls of the Tinsley Church hall in which “Mary Stuart” is presented. Action takes place in the center. While the seating arrangement sometimes blocks views or prevents one from seeing Northeast or Apple-Hodge’s expressions during critical scenes, it allows for strong encounters between the actors. Discussion and argument seem immediate, adding to the tension of a given situation. Those sparring are face-to-face in close proximity. Matters of state and flights of emotion are not carried out in some formal, courtly manner. They are thrust into center stage and take on extra importance and impact.

Schiller’s dialogue is direct. Elizabeth’s courtiers pull no punches. They speak their minds, and they do so with boldness and conviction. Even those who are dissembling or working at cross purposes, such as Mortimer and Leicester, speak convincingly and with the confidence their counsel is the soundest. The strength Foley, Kachnycz, and their castmates, Ross Beschler as Leicester and Brian McCann as Shrewsbury, display, makes the politics surrounding Elizabeth and Mary more intense, more involving. You feel as if you are a part of the negotiation and more than an interloper witnessing it. The debate on the PAC stage has life to it. More than words and exposition is taking place. You are hearing a woman’s fate being determined, and by the time you are, Northeast’s Mary has given you some reason to have a stake in that fate and, possibly, to want logic or sensible policy, tempered with pity or mercy.

Schiller takes a bold stroke when he invokes dramatic imperative and changes history to have Elizabeth and Mary meet. I stand for the right of a playwright, scenarist, or librettist to monkey with facts to make a dramatic story richer. “Mary Stuart” is a play, not a documentary. It is a romantic drama of classical scope and therefore, must have leeway to maximize the conflict and emotion it depicts. Read Antonia Fraser if you want well-researched history. Schiller and PAC are treating you to what you really want to see, Mary getting her wish to see Elizabeth and plead for her life to the woman who can summarily extinguish it.

Hodge does not waste Schiller’s gift. Although the audience knows Leicester has arranged for Elizabeth to come upon Mary as if by accident, and Mary knows a meeting may occur, we are not sure what Elizabeth knows. All the better when Krista Apple-Hodge, in her best of many fine moments playing Elizabeth, treads into Fotheringay, allegedly unbeknownst that Mary is present, and looks at the scenery and comments on its aspect before noticing a woman about whose identity she asks.

If you believe Elizabeth knows full well what she’s marched into, Apple-Hodge’s expression of surprise and disdain is delicious, a vision of winsome curiosity turning to acid and anger. If you figure Elizabeth has not been told in advance, the effect is even greater because it shows Apple-Hodge’s monarch is charmed at first by finding this regal-postured woman in plain clothing in a remote country, then propelled into a disgust and apoplexy that shows throughout her face and bearing. Facing Apple-Hodge — Northeast’s back was to me. — the change in her disposition is palpable and frightening. You would not want to be looked at in the way she suddenly regards Mary. You would not want to be someone responsible for the snafu of this encounter. Apple-Hodge looks that ready to lop the heads off the lot of those present.

Then, just as suddenly, she calmly relents. Elizabeth has curiosity too. Though she may have been duped into having to see Mary, she is assured enough to invite a dialogue. Mind you, Apple-Hodge shows no sign of forgiveness, only toleration for the debacle she knows had to be engineered — Someone in her entourage, certainly Leicester, had to know that Mary had been granted unusual liberty to be outside the confines of her castle on that day and what it might mean for Elizabeth to venture towards Fotheringay. — and natural wonder about who exactly this creature, her cousin and sometimes tormentor, is.

Although I could not see Northeast, the tone of her voice indicates that her visage would be humble and momentarily daunted by the sight of this queen, whose dress, thanks to Katherine Fritz, is especially elegant in appropriate simplicity for a day to be spent on horseback and touring the provinces.

Elizabeth may be curious, but she is not friendly, or even cordial. Merely polite as custom and manners would dictate. With an expression that is half-livid, half amused, she warns her party someone will be accountable for this accident and proceeds to tell Mary she is willing to listen to anything she has to say.

Mary, though she should have been prepared and rehearsed for the moment, cinches her fate by unleashing years’ worth of pent-up frustration and a venomous litany of wrongs she believes she has suffered at the order of Elizabeth. Rather than make a case for freedom, she rails about unwarranted imprisonment. Rather than try to appease her cousin or praise the achievements of her 30-year reign, she dwells on Elizabeth’s tenuous claim to the monarchy. She invokes her royal birth, her having been queen of France, and various other titles and offices that earn her some due.

Mary goes on a relentless tirade that justifies Schiller’s choice to give her sole billing in his play’s title but also Elizabeth’s decision to imprison her. She becomes truly tragic because her words, spewed in choler and bitterness, outstrip any of her deeds, in rousing Elizabeth’s justifiable ire. When Mary refers to Anne Boleyn as a whore, Elizabeth has heard enough. Her patience, never great, is spent.

Mary, it turns out, did not know how to plead, could  not summon respect for Elizabeth or her royal position, and could not restrain herself from letting go of 18 years of resentment and bile.

Northeast’s performance is excellent, but Mary’s can only spell doom. Even if Elizabeth consents to spare her life, she will never let Mary out of prison and will most likely order Paulet to make her life in captivity more frugal, more meager, and more menial.

With her outburst, Mary relinquishes any claim she could possibly hope to have on Elizabeth’s sympathy or any feeling of kinship, or even sisterhood, she planned to forge between them. Northeast, though, triggers out pity and regret for Mary who loses control just when she needs to be at her most persuasive.

Apple-Hodge makes no secret of Elizabeth’s outrage. Her last look at Mary is fierce and lethal. Surveying her entourage, she looks no less forgiving. The Armada can be dealt with sans any interruption about Mary’s affairs. From Elizabeth’s point of view, any questions she had about Mary have been answered.

Dan Hodge has judged each aspect of Schiller’s script well. He allows the confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth to build from quiet surprise to a conflagration of recrimination and revulsion. He keeps discussions between advisors lively, and he gets a boost from his actors in how well they delineate each character so we understand the motive of each counselor and never experience that awkward moment when we realize we understand the argument that was just staged but would be darned if we could tell which character said what. He shows scenes at Mary’s castle to be routine and relatively pleasant although the setting is a prison. Sequences at Elizabeth’s palace are more tension-fraught and politically driven, but you also get a sense of the pageantry and decorum there.

Krista Apple-Hodge is an Elizabeth of many dispositions and moods. Elizabeth would be age 54, nine years older than Mary, in 1587, the year in which “Mary Stuart” is set. Age aside, Apple-Hodge plays Elizabeth as if she was a young and nimble woman. The actress exudes a vibrant, girlish quality to the queen. In turn, her Elizabeth can be imperious, flirtatious, an ordinary woman who happens to be one of the most important figures in the world, or a woman of royal bearing around whom no dog should be so brazen as to bark.

The mercurial nature of Apple-Hodge’s performance makes Elizabeth seem more human and less dourly officious than usual. It makes Elizabeth attractive and gives the longing looks she gives Leicester and the flattery she accepts from Mortimer seem more plausible, as well as more rounding.

Apple-Hodge isn’t as careful in finding and playing the nuances of her lines as Charlotte Northeast is, but she is on the mark when it counts, and especially in the confrontation scene in which Elizabeth carries the day in al ways.

John Lopes is a stolid Paulet. Adam Altman has a wonderful set of scenes as a page entrusted with Mary’s death warrant. Brian McCann exudes trustworthiness as Shrewsbury. Joshua Kachnycz demonstrates great versatility and dramatic flair as Mortimer. Ross Beschler is a tad reptilian as Leicester, showing his rattles a little too early.

Katherine Fritz’s costumes for men and women and characters of every station impress throughout for their quality, taste, handsomeness, and authenticity. John Lionarons provides a dramatic score which he plays live.

“Mary Stuart” runs through Saturday, April 19  in a production by the Philadelphia Artists Collective at Broad Street Ministry, 315 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8  p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $20 and can  be obtained by 800-836-3006 or going online to www.brownpapertickets.com.

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