When the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre undertakes a mega-play steeped in dramatic conflict with multiple levels of characterization, expect splendid results–as evidenced by past shows like “Kentucky Cycle I and II,” “Ragtime,” and the current production, “Mary Stuart,” that displays the political and religious turmoil of Elizabethan England.
The power struggle between first cousins Mary Stuart, (a.k.a. Mary, Queen of Scots) and Elizabeth 1 of England uncovers the personal and political conflict of the two reigning monarchs who claimed heritage rights to the thrown of England. “Mary Stuart” glorifies Mary’s version of the conflict while most historians align with Good Queen Bess’ claim to the thrown.
Elizabeth, the second daughter of King Henry VIII ascended to the throne following the death of her half-sister Mary 1 of England. Mary, known as “Bloody Mary” returned the monarchy to Catholicism after Henry VIII renounced Catholicism after being refused a divorce by the Pope. Henry separated from the church, granted himself a divorce, married Anne Boleyn, and gave fathered his second child, Elizabeth. While Henry was married to Catherine, England was Catholic, and first born Mary was raised Catholic. After separation from the church of Rome and the divorce, England became Anglican and protestant. Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth represented the new religion. Mary of Scotland would have switched England back to Catholic; hence, the religious fighting within the history.
Such background sets the tone for the religious differences in “Mary Stuart.” Mary Stuart was accused of plotting Elizabeth’s overthrow to return the country to Catholicism. Elizabeth feared Mary’s power and followers and felt compelled to imprison her to safeguard her own reign.
With that background, settle in for an extra long drama re-imaged from a five-act play to a two-act play that runs about three hours with intermission. Power, jealousy, revenge, corruption, lies, deceit, pride, controversy, plots, sub-plots–all serve as fodder for the two queens to encounter. Karen Paisley and Cheryl Weaver chew up the script and deliver a no-holds barred conflict of the two power-hungry queens.
Both actresses excel with powerhouse delivery of their characters. Amazingly, each displays the human frailties and weaknesses of the combative queens. Paisley displays the anger of being imprisoned for 19 years by her cousin and stripped of al her regal amenities, yet humbles herself to plead for equality and a fair trial. She seeks compassion and understanding. Elizabeth, on the other hand seeks acceptance of her people, advice from her counselors, and a sense of certainty to overcome her uncertainty. Both are bold and ruthless as the play unfolds.
Karen Paisley and Weaver dominate every scene. One conceived meeting of the two regal allow the claws to come out as they confront each other and verbally spar in a prize fight where no winner can emerge. It’s a tussle that cements Mary’s fate. Both actresses deserve ovations for that scene alone.
Trevor Belt assisted Karen Paisley in the direction of “Mary Stuart,” and helped push the dramatic play over the top. The directorial tandem honed the performances of some very established actors who back up the two stars of the play.
Bob Paisley stepped out of the shadows and smaller parts to assume the part of Earl of Leicester who bedded and charmed both queens. His plotting and conniving leaves the audience guessing where his heart truly lie. Paisley’s portrayal shows the duality of Leicester’s nature to always best benefit himself. Paisley was strong, sleazy, and convincing in his portrayal.
A frequent actor at the MET, Robert Gibby Brand, always delivers a strong performance and a creates unique characters in each outing. Here his motives come into question as Lord Burleigh seeks his own power and importance. He will sacrifice everything for his individual benefit.
Under-noticed talent, Andy Penn, dons another character with depth and inner conflict as he undertakes the part of Sir Amias Paulet. Penn’s character serves as the guard for Mary Stuart for her imprisonment. His character is anguished with his loyalty to Elizabeth, his job to keep Mary safe, and his personal feelings toward Mary. He finds the nuances that make him a firm guard with just a hint of compassion toward his charge. Penn continues to build his resume with strong portrayals of diverse characters. He is one of the best actors in his age bracket.
Another actor, Alan Tilson, produces another of his stellar characterizations with his turn as Earl of Shrewsbury in “Mary Stuart.” Tilson appears in many of the MET’s productions, providing beautiful support to lead actors. His long career encompasses many plays and characters. He never fails to convey layered characters. Expect Tilson to portray Shrewsbury with a dash of flair, anger, and concern for the reigning monarch.
As the only other female in the cast, Cindy Siefers, made her MET debut with “Mary Stuart.” She portrays Mary’s life-long nurse and Mary’s only servant during the imprisonment. Her character shows devotion and a fighting allegience to the imprisoned queen. Siefers is very believable in her scenes with Karen Paisley and Andy Penn.
Up and coming actor, Seth Jones, busts on the set with the character of Mortimer. He is the nephew of Sir Paulet and secretly the leader of an attempt to free Mary from prison. The duality of his character gives the sense of plotting and espionage to the show. He’s an ambitious character with an deceitful facade. Jones is splendid in this play. Watch for him in other shows.
Others in the cast include: Donovan Kidd, Kevin Albert, Andy Perkins, Jordan Fox, and Chris Gleeson. The production team includes: Tony Beasley, associate producer; Erica Sword, costume design; John Story, sound design; Erin Picardy, stage manager; Derek Boyd, light design; Marc Manley, props master; Taylor Smith, asst. stage manager; Kyle Dyck, carpenter; Karen Paisley, set design; Tom Devine, carpenter; Karen Paisley, Andy Perkins, fight choreography; Annie Rosenbrook, Taylor Smith, James Paisley, Tony Beasley, Justin Watson, Brian Stearn, crew.
Costumes for what would traditionally be a costume drama stood out as only the women appeared in period costumes while the men wore suits. The costuming kept the intensity on the main characters and the story. It also allowed more focus on the actors and the dialogue without the distraction of elaborate costumes.
The MET’s “Mary Stuart” comes with the highest recommendations for those who enjoy a gripping drama steeped in history. Even thought the regal meeting never occurred, the rivalry between the queens is paramount to understand the play’s setting. Acting is phenomenal in this piece. The casting could not have been better. The supporting cast equals the dominance of the leads. The historic nature of “Mary Stuart” makes it appropriate for adolescents through mature audiences. The show comes with the highest recommendations.
Peter Oswald’s play “Mary Stuart” runs through Feb. 8 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main Street, Kansas City, MO, 64111. More information may be found on the MET’s website. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 816.569.3226, or in person at the door. According to the box office, ticket demand is strong, and advance reservations are encouraged. General seating begins at 7 with show time at 7:30 p.m. for evening performances. Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m.