T

here’s a touchy moment in the 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love when
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola de Lesseps is on the verge of being unmasked as a
woman posing as a man in order to play a woman on the all-male Elizabethan
stage. Happily for her, someone in a similar situation happens to be in the
audience: the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth, herself. “I know something of a
woman in a man’s profession,” says Judi Dench’s steely old monarch as she
deftly countermands the evidence of everybody’s eyes. “Yes, by God, I do
know about that.”

Twenty years have passed since the scene was filmed, and almost exactly 415
since Elizabeth’s reign ended (March 24, 1603), but I think it’s safe to
say we still haven’t gotten over the notion of a woman in a so-called man’s
profession. Not by a long shot. I mean, never mind #MeToo—PBS is in the
third season of a series on Queen Victoria and Netflix has one on QEII.

Which makes the current Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart at once thoroughly zeitgeisty and a little
subversive. Subversive because, as much as it has to say about the
difficulties a woman might encounter trying to navigate the pitiless
corridors of power, the play is also very clear in demonstrating that she
may take to it rather better than anybody expected.

Friedrich Schiller published Maria Stuart in 1801, and Peter
Oswald has written an English-language “version” that premiered in 2005.
Oswald’s fluid, wryly funny script is the one on view at Chicago
Shakespeare. It’s a hell of a yarn even if you’re being historically
accurate, and Schiller/Oswald aren’t.

Mary Stuart is the one also known to history as Mary, Queen of Scots. A
Catholic cousin of Elizabeth, she ascended the Edinburgh throne in the
company of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who turned up dead one day in 1567.
Mary then married the man who was generally thought to have killed him,
igniting a scandal that led to her forced abdication. She fled to England,
supposing she’d be safe under Elizabeth’s protection. She was mistaken.
Elizabeth feared Mary’s arguably stronger claim to the English throne as
well as her potential appeal to disgruntled Catholics (including foreign
kings) anxious to oust Elizabeth’s Protestant regime. The queen therefore
put Mary under a luxurious form of house arrest that lasted close to two
decades.

As Schiller’s telling starts Mary has been implicated in yet another
Catholic conspiracy against the crown, despite her confinement (which is
depicted as harsh by her nurse, involving pewter dishware that a “duchess
would sniff at”). When her trial ends in a guilty verdict, various
supporters swing into action—or into plotting, anyway—notably a suave,
canny, profoundly politic courtier who’s served Elizabeth but loved Mary
and a young hothead who’s secretly turned against his hard-core Protestant
upbringing. It’s something of a surprise to find out who these two
intriguers are, so I won’t describe them any further except to say—and here
I’m assuming you won’t read your program too carefully before the show—Tim
Decker
is marvelous as the courtier, allowing him wisdom and a conscience
along with Machiavellian smarts; Andrew Chown’s hothead, meanwhile, gets a
fascinating speech about his conversion to Catholicism that lays bare the
irrational power of art to transform us.

Unfolding on a set designed by Andromache Chalfant to be as brutal or sweet
as it needs to be, Jenn Thompson’s witty staging features plenty of other
vivid performances, from Kevin Gudahl‘s as the bluff, honest knight charged
with guarding Mary to Robert Jason Jackson’s as the Earl of Shrewsbury, the
only Christian among droves of sectarians, to David Studwell‘s as the
hubristic high treasurer Lord Burleigh. Thompson and company are great at
limning the circles of hell Schiller created especially for government
servants.

But the whole thing finally comes down to the two queens. Apparently much
like the actual historical figure, K.K. Moggie’s Mary is an old-style
sovereign, mortified by her situation yet standing on the notion that
divine right makes her immune to prosecution. She’s an old-style woman too:
the men who follow her fall crazy in love. Kellie Overbey’s Elizabeth, on
the other hand, gives us a wholly different sort of being—one who helps us
understand what made the original so monumental. She has her jealousies and
her snits, of course, but more than anything she’s a leader in the modern
sense, followed because she exercises power, and therefore capable of the
great cruelties of pragmatism. Even her hesitations are strategic. No need
to qualify this Elizabeth as a woman in a man’s profession. She’s simply a
pro.   v