Mary Stuart

Austin Shakespeare's staging of this historical drama is something special

Arts Review

Mary Stuart

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside, 457-5100,

Through Feb. 28

Running time: 2 hr., 50 min.

You were the queen of Scotland, once the queen of France, and a possible heir to the throne of England. After an enforced abdication, you throw yourself on the mercy of your cousin,

Queen Elizabeth, who imprisons you for crimes you did not commit. You admit you are not perfect. You married the man who probably murdered your husband. But you are under the threat of the axe for something you did not do. For that you have justice, righteousness, and truth on your side.

Ya gotta say, that's a pretty good story. Friedrich Schiller took advantage of it and wrote this now-classic play, presented by Austin Shakespeare in a new and soaring translation by Peter Oswald, and director Ann Ciccolella has assembled a design team and group of actors that take advantage of all of it. Scenic designer Aaron Bell uses the width of the Long Center's Rollins Theatre, making the two halves of the audience face each other, placing the action of the play in a long alley in the middle. At each end of the stage, huge panels rise, some with writing on them, creating strong visual tension, like a scale with great balances on the ends. Costume designer Jennifer Madison reflects this tension by costuming the men in modern business attire and the two women – for there are only two, Mary and Elizabeth – in modified Elizabethan dress. Lighting designer Jason Amato fills the space with intense directional light, sometimes from above, sometimes from below, and one notable time from a seemingly heavenly source. This sense of two-sidedness, of Elizabeth vs. Mary, Protestant vs. Catholic, women vs. men, seems to ride underneath the entire production, and having to face the other half of the audience, with the action balancing in between, seems to make us all complicit in the events.

Ciccolella has cast well, getting stand-out performances from Ian Scott as the conniving Lord Burleigh and from Pamela Christian, who handles Oswald's poetic dialogue particularly well, as Elizabeth. Some of the performances unfortunately stray into melodrama, but as a group, the actors know what's important and manage to keep it real, none more so than Helen Merino as Mary. From her first entrance, Merino carries grace onto the stage. She represents a just cause, faith, and innocence. As an actress, when Merino listens, she listens as if for the first time, and when she speaks, it sounds like first thought. No gesture looks studied; everything appears to come straight from the center of her being, especially her voice. Merino keenly and expertly uses tempo, intensity, volume, and articulation to convey Mary's passionate belief in her cause. While Ciccolella appears to have gotten many of her actors to commit to similar patterns, Merino embodies the pattern, offering something truly rare: a performance of pure presence.

You are in an audience of 150 people. You are watching a play written in the early 19th century about people who lived in the early 17th century. The first act lasts well over an hour and a half, and you, and everyone else, return for the second. You are experiencing something special, nothing more so than the utter silence that greets so many important moments in this Equity production. There is no sound more sweet than silence in a theatre. It means everybody's listening.

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Mary Stuart, Austin Shakespeare, Ann Ciccolella, Pamela Christian, Helen Merino, Jason Amato, Aaron Bell, Jennifer Madison, Ian Scott

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