‘Mary Stuart’ at Seattle’s A.C.T. – A Review

Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 drama, “Mary Stuart,” is receiving a smashing production at Seattle’s A.C.T., A Contemporary Theatre, and reminding New Yorkers like myself to never get snooty about how much better theater is in the Big Apple than anywhere else.

In fact, after spending an evening with this splendid company, Gothamites might find themselves wondering why they have to make do with empty calorie musicals instead of the raw meat of Schiller’s disquisition on power politics, religious hatred, and humankind’s seeming inability to ever do the right thing.

Suzanne Bouchard as Elizabeth Tudor and Anne Allgood as Mary Stuart, in Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller, in a new version by Peter Oswald, at ACT - A Contemporary Theatre. Credit: Chris Bennion

You probably know the bare bones of the plot. Elizabeth I reigns in England, but her right to the throne is challenged by those who claim that she is a bastard and that Mary Stuart a.k.a. Mary Queen of Scots, whose bloodline makes her a plausible pretender, is the rightful queen. Things are complicated by the fact that Catholic Mary represents an existential threat to Protestant England. It doesn’t end well.

Schiller took considerable dramatic license in constructing the play but, in a way that is almost Shakespearean, his examination of human souls in conflict makes questions of historical accuracy somewhat beside the point. And like Shakespeare, he creates no monochromatic characters. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth emerge as particularly likeable characters, although in a noble death Mary looks a lot better than the monstrous Elizabeth we see at play’s end. As to the men who surround these powerful women, most are duplicitous and the few who have a sense of honor and decency are the least powerful.

The modern version by Peter Oswald manages the tricky feat of rendering an old text into modern English without any jarring anachronisms, and a superb cast, under the taut direction of Victor Pappas, puts Oswald’s tightly constructed rhetoric across with power and conviction.

Anne Allgood (Mary) and Suzanne Bouchard (Elizabeth), who I gather are beloved doyennes of the Seattle stage, deliver blazing performances. Their second act encounter (which never actually happened) is riveting. I wonder why no one thought to have them alternate roles; I surely would have wanted to see it twice. (Above photo by Chris Bennion.)

Both queens are dressed in Elizabeth garb, while the counselors and hangers on who surround them are all in somber, modern attire. At first jarring, the conceit makes the telling point that queens are not normal people and the pressures of their position can barely be conceived by the likes of us.

The men who surround these powerful women are every bit the equals of the two leading actresses. All of them are terrific. Perhaps first among equals are R. Hamilton Wright as the tormented and morally twisted Leicester and Allen Fitzpatrick as Shrewsbury, a paragon of rectitude among Machiavels.

Also excellent are Allen Michael Barlow as Amias Paulet, Mary’s jailer; Peter Crook as Lord Burleigh, Mary’s most ardent foe; Joshua Carter as Mortimer (another Schiller invention), a Papist plotter whose ardor for Mary’s cause becomes a bit too fervent; and Terry Edward Moore, whose turn as Melvil, proves the point that there are no small roles.

The play is being presented in A.C.T.’s Allen Theatre, an intimate in-the-round venue. Designer Robert A. Dahlstrom’s ingenious set turns a small, seemingly bare stage into a variety of locales that flow seamlessly one to another.

If you are in Seattle during the run of this wonderful play, don’t miss it.


Our pre-theater dining choice was Etta’s, near Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. It is the creation of Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas, whose culinary empire seems to be growing by the day. As befits its setting, the emphasis is on seafood and the Dungeness crab cakes are justly famous.

Since we needed to get to the theatre, we chose to take advantage of Etta’s version of happy hour – Crabby Hour. Drinks are cut price, including some very nice wines at $5 the glass, and there is a selection of crab-based appetizers. The crab dip with spiced potato chips was excellent.

For entrees we chose the house specialty “Rub With Love” Salmon, grilled wild king salmon with sautéed green beans and cornbread pudding (the eponymous spice rub can be purchased at the shop next door) and a sweet and creamy saffron tinted bouillabaisse. It was all delicious.

The staff is gracious and attentive, and they kindly summoned a taxi to whisk us to the theatre just in time to make curtain.

For more information:

“Mary Stuart” plays through October 9, 2011. Running time 2 hours, 35 minutes

ACT – A Contemporary Theatre
700 Union Street, Seattle 98101
Box office 206-292-7676
Tickets $15 – $55

2020 Western Avenue
Seattle, 98121
(206) 443-6000
Reservations can be made on opentable.com