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      Maria Stuart
    A problem like Maria

    The Swedish production of Schiller's "Maria Stuart," directed by Ingmar Bergman, presents the clash of two formidable and formidably acted female roles.


    How often do you go to the theater and get chills, and not as a result of overactive air conditioning? At BAM's presentation of Friedrich Schiller's Maria Stuart, all the elements of great drama are there. Powerful personalities. Super high stakes. National, religious and internal conflict. Supremely talented actors. And incomparable director Ingmar Bergman.

    Written by: Friedrich von Schiller.
    Directed by: Ingmar Bergman.
    Cast: Pernilla August, Lena Endre.

    Related links: Official site
    Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)
    30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn
    June 12-16, 2002

    Written in 1800, this intense drama is constructed around the fictitious confrontation of two historical cousins, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. From the very first stage picture, we get it. Energetic English reds juxtapose the blacks and grays of the imprisoned Scottish queen and her meager retinue. The tableau breaks and both royal statues begin to breathe. Protestant Elizabeth bursts upward into a lively dance with her French wooers, while Catholic Mary visibly sinks into her status as subject and lonely political prisoner.

    Schiller's Queen Elizabeth is written as the bad guy, unlike the more recent, likable movie Elizabeths portrayed by Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench. Even so, Lena Endre's performance is charming, conflicted, dangerous and sexy. She and Bergman combat the "root for the underdog" mentality that permeates the script. Trouble is, we also like Mary. Gorgeously acted by Pernilla August as a devout and wronged papist, she merely wants her freedom, not to overthrow Protestant England. This is Schiller, remember, not history. Bergman keeps both ladies on stage throughout, whether in the scene or not, as either a shadow or reflection of the other's life and decisions. Their constant presence (and acute engagement as actors at all times — a brilliant exercise in concentration) is a reminder of the repercussions of all their actions. It also serves to highlight those rare moments when only one of them is present and terribly alone.

      The Catholic martyr's preparation for the scaffold is haunting, as she takes off her wig before the beheading to reveal shockingly close-cropped gray hair, deprived of almost every dignity, yet still in control and yes, sexy.
    Did I mention that both queens are in love with the same man, the Earl of Leicester, who is screwing them both over? This literary license makes the rivalry between the women complete — there is seemingly nothing to bind them together, except that they are both women. Even in womanhood, however, they are utterly different. Elizabeth smokes and has sex whenever and wherever she wants (such as center stage), in spite of her reputation as the virgin queen. Mary is beautiful and prayerful, in spite of her reputation as a whore who had her first husband killed so she could marry her lover.

    The meeting. Mary is barefoot and unkempt. Elizabeth is dressed impeccably for riding, still in red, with crop, pants, red boots, gloves and all. Speaking of sexy (and in a Bergman production, when are we not?), this scene is dripping with it. Two of the most powerful women in history face off, and we watch their status swap. Mary begins by forcing herself to kneel in front of her sister queen, the electricity between them almost visible, and ends by crushing her with words, climaxing in her giddy collapse in the very spot where Elizabeth took Leicester. Worst of all, Leicester saw the whole embarrassing exchange, and the animosity Elizabeth feels for Mary is at its height. She is not used to being insulted, and Mary will pay the ultimate price.

    The production's soundscape is subtle at first, so that when, at the end of the first act, a thunderclap freezes the cast of characters in an eerie red glow, we are jolted by its suddenness and power. This is bigger than some neurotic beauty pageant. Stay tuned.

    As the second act begins, things aren't going very well for either of our queens, and Elizabeth attempts to shift responsibility for Mary's death sentence to anyone who'll take it. Or anyone who won't. She starts with the oft-used plea: "Will no one rid me of this pain in my royal hide?" (translation mine) and ends with, "I can't believe you did that — off with your head!" (translation also mine).

    The Catholic martyr's preparation for the scaffold is haunting, both in its historical accuracy, as Mary removes her dress to reveal a blood-red petticoat, and in its inaccuracy, as she takes off her wig before the beheading to reveal shockingly close-cropped gray hair, deprived of almost every dignity, yet still in control and yes, sexy.

    Politically speaking, of course, Elizabeth may have made the only choice available to her, but as a woman and a human being, there is little to assuage the guilt of sending a cousin and a fellow queen to her death. The play's final image is a stunning visual of both queens at their most vulnerable: a solitary Elizabeth, having dismissed or been abandoned by everyone close to her, and Mary, neck bared for the axe, bereft of everything but her soul. Perhaps they are not so different after all.

    All this, and the production is in Swedish. BAM provided a concurrent English translation on headsets which I found terribly annoying at first. These actors are so good, I thought, and I have to listen to these monotonous voices drone on. Within minutes, however, I determined that the flat translation was the best thing — it didn't get in the way of what was going on onstage, and I was still able to understand. The woman next to me suggested at intermission that I use only one ear of the headset, and that helped. I felt bilingual all of a sudden. If only I had a chance to go back and watch it with no translation at all.

    The greatest tragedy is BAM having only five performances. The production is a triumph of everything theater should be, and I can only say if you hear that anything by Ingmar Bergman is coming to town, buy your tickets on the instant.

    JUNE 15, 2002

    Reader comments on Maria Stuart:

  • German Literature   from Anand, Apr 13, 2007

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