A historical drama unlike any other

Peter Oswald’s 2005 translation of Friedrich Schiller’s monarchial classic “Mary Stuart” opened at TheatreCNU this weekend and audiences simply adored it.

In 1800, German playwright and historian Friedrich Schiller struck dramatic gold when he took two of history’s most ruthless divas and, with a large amount of creative freedom, told of the tumultuous February, 1587. History books brand Queen Elizabeth I a hero and herald her as the most important woman in England’s history; the relative juxtaposition of that is history’s treatment of Elizabeth’s first cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Add in a love interest and a few power-hungry advisors and the result is a theatrical tour-de-force typically seen only in Grand Opera.  It is an idea that inspired Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti to pen the score to a surprisingly controversial “Maria Stuarda” the second of his three operas about the Tudors. However, due to the rarely performed opera, and scarce performances of the play, this work rapidly fell to the back of American theatrical memory.

The seven-time Tony Award nominated Broadway production of Peter Oswald’s new translation reintroduced American audiences to Schiller’s masterpiece. Professor Denise Gillman’s production brings new life to this historical masterpiece.

The cast is led by sophomore Shelby Smith in the eponymous role and junior Courtney Colligan as the “female king” Elizabeth Tudor. Smith’s performance transcends language, and I find myself straining to find words able to describe the heart-wrenching, emotional performance.

Bursting with regal poise and beauty, even in a prison cell, from the moment she first sets foot on the traditional “raked” stage, to her last moment as she climbs the stairs into the blinding ethereal light symbolizing her death,the journey that Smith takes the audience on is so completely developed that the audience was on the edge of their seats the entire performance.

Stunning power in voice and action, stirring depression, reckless happiness, and unsettling calm are all phrases I could use to describe Smith’s performance, however they simply cannot convey the authority of her interpretation of Mary Stuart. Colligan’s performance is equally as stunning. Playful authority, casual grace and elegant comedic timing are the signatures of her performance in the first act.

A huge shift is seen, and Colligan’s versatility and emotional flexibility are put to the test in Act Two. Mirroring the regal grace of her performance before the break, the impressive coldness, expressive anger and astounding emotion in her voice send the audience on a journey into the mind of Elizabeth Tudor.

I dare say that Colligan has the best grasp on the heightened language of the play, as the words sound so simple and natural coming from deep within her extravagantly costumed body.

Just as impressive is junior Topher Embrey’s deliciously deceitful, indulgent, commanding performance as the Earl of Leicester. Embrey’s carefully calculated body language and perfectly planned facial expressions set the unrivaled example of “active listening.”

Senior Levi Shrader’s interpretation of Mortimer is exceptional. Shrader’s charming, impish, tortured performance seduces the audience as well as the two queens, in that dangerous way that scares us but also keeps us begging for more. Senior Torsten Peterson delivers an impressive performance as Talbot. His kind words and firm reassurance are the perfect anchor to Colligan’s Elizabeth.

Also impressive is senior Renae Erichsen’s emotionally exhausting performance as Mary’s nurse. A warm, maternal energy is effectively injected into the show by Erichsen; at every exit the audience always missed her. Freshman Sam Jones delivers a refreshing performance as Davison. Jones, showing much promise, proves that he can hold his own on stage with the upperclassmen through a perfect use of comedic timing and remarkable stage presence.

The foreboding set, Professor Tanya Sweet’s interpretation of Purgatory, seamlessly transitions from prison to a park to the throne room– largely due to the use of drapery– and Professor Genny Wynn’s amazingly expressive lighting design.

Professor Kathy Jaremski’s opulent costume design becomes as much a part of the story as junior Cori McDaniel’s expressive sound design; the high drama of this spoken opera is punctuated by old English madrigals, demonstrating the remarkably lyrical flow of the text. Be sure to catch one of the three remaining shows: tonight, Thursday and Friday night at 8 p.m. in the M&T Hall of the Ferguson Center.