From the first moments of Utah Shakespeare Festival's "Mary Stuart," the production feels out of whack.
In Peter Oswald's new version of Friedrich Schiller's 1800 classic, the opening scene involves an older servant (Leslie Brott) objecting to a court officer's demand to seize her master's personal property. Brott is so broad in movement that you wait for punch lines that never come. Those who don't know the script may be fooled into thinking they're watching a comedy.
We go into this play knowing it's about the duel between victim Mary, Queen of Scots, and her triumphant sister, Queen Elizabeth I of England. We know Mary is going to be beheaded. But Schiller gives us an irresistible cliffhanger.
We meet Mary and get to know her arguments for freedom. Then, we spend time with Elizabeth, who has her own seemingly airtight logic for having jailed her sibling for 18 years. Mary seems to have put being a woman above all other concerns; Elizabeth has (apparently) denied her human needs to serve her people. The contrasts are fascinating. Naturally, then, we greatly anticipate the story's climatic meeting between the two giants. When the pair are finally in the same room, we can feel a no-turning-back consequence about to occur.
Trouble is, director Kate Buckley has made neither of the rulers interesting.
In the title role, Jacqueline Antaramian spends much of the first section screaming as we would expect an ordinary citizen to do. There's little about her that suggests a leader people would want to follow. Monica Bell, as Elizabeth, is a hard-hearted tyrant. Her actions are no surprise because Bell comes across as invulnerable. The obviousness doesn't give a clue of what Schiller's greatness is all about.
Buckley manages to communicate the duplicities that surround the royals. We're never quite sure who's on whose side, so we share the leading characters' confusion about which people deserve trust. And a first-rate supporting cast gives some badly needed dimension.
The evening's finest moment is an unexpectedly timed final blackout. If only Mary and Elizabeth's confrontation had given us the same jolt.
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat @aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.