Review: MARY STUART at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Review: MARY STUART at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Pictured (l-r): Kellie Overbey and K.K. Moggie. Photo by Liz Lauren. 

By Elizabeth Ellis

The deeply contentious rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots manifested in their great differences: Elizabeth and the new Church of England versus Mary and traditional Roman Catholicism, the self-created virgin queen versus a mother with multiple marriages and lovers, a goddess to admire chastely versus a goddess to worship with desire. In Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 classic, MARY STUART, given a sharp and gorgeous reimagining by playwright Peter Oswald, director Jenn Thompson, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the two opposing monarchs wage a war of words and power that fuels their drive to become the unquestioned sovereign of their nations, no matter the cost.

As the play opens, Mary has been held prisoner in various locations in England and Scotland for more than a decade, accused of treason in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Mary’s numerous devotees have been scheming to return to her to what they feel is her rightful place as queen (as Elizabeth was born of a union that the Catholic Church did not recognize, many Catholics saw Elizabeth as a bastard and not a rightful heir to the throne). While Mary did have a legitimate claim to the throne, Elizabeth’s considerable allies fought tooth and nail to make sure that Elizabeth remained queen. Both women surrounded themselves with men who simultaneously worked to ensure that their beloved queen remained in power, and also hoped to increase their own position and influence.

Elizabeth’s advisors offer her conflicting guidance: the unyielding Lord Burleigh recommends Mary’s immediate execution; the more compassionate Earl of Shrewsbury counters that execution would make a martyr of Mary and set in motion repercussions unimaginable; and the deft and handsome Earl of Leicester (lover of both Mary and Elizabeth) slyly plays both ends against the middle, recommending that Elizabeth keep Mary a prisoner, giving Elizabeth the option to carry out the execution when she sees fit. When Mary and Elizabeth finally meet, their interaction offers no movement towards more understanding nor a peaceful resolution, and eventually Mary is executed.

Director Thompson paces the production with the intensity necessary in this life-or-death situation, yet finds the delicate balance between two rulers battling it out for supremacy and two unfamiliar cousins who must finally deal with each other. K.K. Moggie beautifully embodies Mary’s warmth, passions and certainty of her position, yet she also wrestles with the frustration, humiliation, and loss of what she feels is her God-given right to rule. Kellie Overbey’s Elizabeth provides a perfect foil for Moggie’s Mary: her cool, understated, and unquestioned belief in her sovereignty belies her nagging self-doubt about the decisions – personal as well as political – she must make as queen. What’s wonderful about both of these performances is that we see the flesh-and-blood women and not just two queens at war over the same claim. Excellent work comes from Mortimer (Andrew Chown) as Mary’s greatest supplicant, and all Elizabeth’s advisors: Burleigh (David Studwell), Talbot (Robert Jason Jackson), Paulet (Kevin Gudahl), and particularly Dudley (Tim Decker) as the sly but vacillating man caught between love and duty with the two powerful women.

Andromache Chalfant’s cold but striking gray set creates a perfect backdrop for both a harsh and unyielding mindset as well as Mary’s literal prison, Fotheringhay Castle. Greg Hofmann and Philip Rosenberg gracefully illuminate the stage with cold shafts of light that bring to mind the small slices that only occasionally enter a prison cell. Linda Cho’s fabulous costumes range from businesslike gray and black pinstripes and cloaks for the men, to the first move away from neutrals in Mary’s somber and modest olive gown, to Elizabeth’s large and glorious magenta dress and glittering standing ruff, the only splash of color and sparkle on the stage – until Mary emerges at the end in a beautiful piece of stagecraft..

You can spend hours arguing whether Mary or Elizabeth had the right to their throne, and make few discoveries about either woman, or their circumstances. MARY STUART provides a far better option to such discourse, and will give you more perspective, in a thoroughly wonderful production.

MARY STUART runs through April 15th. For more information visit

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.