Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off

Local Arts Reviews

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off: Just Ahead

The Vortex,

through April 27

Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min

Native Scot Lorella Loftus places her head on the chopping block as the producer, director, and star of Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Renaissance Austin Theatre Company's ambitious first production. Another alliterative Scottish talent, Liz Lochhead, penned this award-winning dramatization of the bonnie queen's reign.

Mary (Loftus) and her cousin Elizabeth I (Bernadette Nason) of England have an axe or two to grind. Although they never meet, the cousins keep tabs on one another while they compete for the courtship of the same French, Spanish, and Austrian princes. As each represents the other's closest surviving relative, either woman could produce the heir to the other's throne. Above all, Elizabeth wishes for a Protestant heir. Mary values Catholicism and religious tolerance, evidenced in her frequent debates with the founder of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, John Knox (Paul Norton). Narrator La Corbie (the crow, Ann Marshall) hints at the plight of the royal cousins: The island of Britain ain't big enough for the two of them.

The strength of Loftus' performance does justice to that of Mary. Ann Marshall sprouts wings in an impressive debut. Dan Bisbee and Scott M. Daigle wield their swords tolerably well as Mary's second and third husbands, the fey Henry Darnley and the robust Earl of Bothwell. The brilliant Nason plays Elizabeth with the right measure of dilettante and stateswoman. Many of Lochhead's sharpest lines go to Knox; the accomplished Norton salivates acid like "the blood of bairns in the hedgerows and ... scattered ... over the stubble of the fields." Norton executes Knox as a repressed wife-beater whose Pharisee politics would make Billy Graham look like a backseat petitioner. Lacking a confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary, the knife-edge climax occurs when Knox and Mary accuse each other of mixing religion and politics. Knox claims that God enters his sermons to call her a whore, something which he cannot control; Mary explains that she keeps her Catholic heart private and separate from her public head of a Protestant state.

As director, Loftus' masterstroke may be the inclusion of music at the forefront of all the proceedings. By all accounts, both queens were music fans. David Saldana, on a variety of instruments, and Elizabeth D. Marquis, on the fiddle/violin, play choppy jigs, Robbie Burns songs, and Spanish serenades with the accuracy and passion of royal entertainers. The commitment of the Renaissance Company to Celtic culture goes too far, however, with gratuitous Highland dancing scenes.

Lochhead writes from a traditional feminist stance -- retelling the male version of history -- yet borrows the colorful images and historical references of macho bards like Shakespeare and Robbie Burns. Some of the host of characters could be axed, some of the lyrical lines and history lesson trimmed, but Loftus the producer prevails by enticing some of Austin's finest actors from the Shakespearean courts back to the realm of the experimental. For me, the cleanest-cut scene dispenses with historical realism: 12-year-old mini-versions of the central characters antagonize each other in the street of late-20th-century Edinburgh. The excuse of religious differences as used by Elizabeth against her cousin continues to be a weapon in interpersonal and community conflicts.

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Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Lorella Loftus, Renaissance Austin Theatre Company, Liz Lochhead, Bernadette Nason, Paul Norton, Ann Marshall, Dan Bisbee, Scott M. Daigle, David Saldana, Elizabeth D. Marquis

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