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Mary Stuart

Court Theatre

Richard II

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

"A single death is a tragedy," Joseph Stalin once observed. "A million deaths is a statistic." But after the horrific events of September 11, with the threat of more carnage to come, plays about the deaths of royals in centuries past present some problems. With so many innocents slaughtered so close to home, it's hard to feel sorry for two supremely self-involved monarchs like Mary Stuart and Richard II, particularly given the appalling lack of judgment both rulers demonstrated.

On the other hand, Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart (written in 1800) and Shakespeare's Richard II (written in 1596) contain compelling, poetic arguments about our conflicting desires for reconciliation and revenge. Reflecting on the transitory nature of life, these plays resonate even more after the attacks. The difference between the two productions--aside from the obvious fact that Shakespeare is a much better playwright than Schiller--lies in how their directors handle (or mishandle) the problematic titular characters, bridging the gap between the beauty of their speeches and the perfidious or foolish nature of their actions.

JoAnne Akalaitis (whose previous Court Theatre production was last season's In the Penal Colony) opts for a broad B-movie style that sets up the combative queens--Mary and Elizabeth I of England, Mary's cousin--as vain, silly, histrionic cartoons, then abruptly abandons that concept in the show's second half. Jenny Bacon as Mary and Barbara E. Robertson as Elizabeth are hamstrung by Akalaitis's proclivity for anachronistic stage business that doesn't expand our understanding of either queen's precarious state.

According to biographer Antonia Fraser, Mary was a hypochondriac. But having her pop copious amounts of Tylenol early in the play makes her seem a garden-variety neurotic, not a noble woman who's endured years of imprisonment in the England she thought would shelter and support her after she was forced to leave Scotland. And when Elizabeth and her advisers discuss beheading Mary, they punctuate their points by popping open cans of Diet Coke at each mention of execution. Similarly, when Mary or her attendants in prison mention the name of Burleigh, the chief proponent of her execution, they turn their heads in stylized profiles, mouths agape, while we hear a horror-movie "da dum!" The net effect of these gestures is to distance us from the play--and for no discernible reason other than the director thought they might be funny and cute. Nor do such devices help cut through Schiller's thick layers of exposition in the early scenes, establishing such past follies as Mary plotting to kill her second husband, then running off with his murderer.

The climactic meeting at the end of the first act between Mary and Elizabeth (a meeting Schiller invented out of whole cloth) here ends in a stereotypical catfight between two harridans. (Wearing identical curly red wigs, their eyes shining huge through white pancake makeup, Bacon and Robertson look like Elizabethan versions of Little Orphan Annie.) What Akalaitis doesn't seem to realize is that this scene is crucial to the play. In effect the Catholic Mary signs her own death warrant by taunting Protestant Elizabeth (in the presence of Leicester, Elizabeth's lover and Mary's former suitor and hoped-for savior) about her "bastard" status as Henry VIII's daughter by Anne Boleyn, a marriage the Roman Church didn't recognize. (To ease audience confusion, the royal family trees are painted on Gordana Svilar's forbidding gray box of a set.) Their confrontation makes Elizabeth realize that, as long as Mary lives, her position as queen will be in question. But since Akalaitis has done little up to this point to suggest either the two rulers' dignity or their complex frailty, this encounter is devoid of the urgency it must have for the rest of the play to make sense and for us to care what happens to either woman.

Akalaitis's staging is more somber and stripped down in the second act. And intermittently some of Schiller's best passages do come through. Bacon imbues Mary's final scene with the grace and sense of victory the Scottish queen could never find in life, coming close to the romantic martyr Schiller envisioned. But Elizabeth remains an enigma despite Robertson's cyclonic performance. Near the play's close, Elizabeth's trusted adviser Talbot, who's argued passionately against Mary's execution, mournfully tells the English queen, "I could not preserve the greater part of you." But this staging hasn't allowed us to glimpse what this greater part might be.

Like Mary, Richard II is a problematic hero--easily flattered, quick to spend money (particularly other people's money), temperamental, and prone to self-pity. And like Mary, Richard becomes greater in his downfall than he ever was as ruler.

Barbara Gaines's staging for Chicago Shakespeare Theater is a triumph of stagecraft and concept, bolstered by one of the strongest ensembles I've seen all year. Her modern-dress interpretation draws parallels to our troubled times (though certainly she couldn't have known how troubled they would be when she chose the play). But she makes the connection in a way that allows the characters to grow. Richard's court is situated in a swank martini bar with funky music and dirty dancing, and the king's hangers-on sport flashy, trashy threads that contrast sharply with the stuffy black suits worn by the lords of the realm (costumes by Michael Krass). The meeting rooms in which the various plots and counterplots are hatched look like the inner sanctums of Wall Street (scenic design by James Noone).

Scott Parkinson is breathtaking as Richard, a man with a poetic soul and a stunted conscience. Capturing this essential paradox with charm, wit, and quicksilver intelligence, Parkinson savors Richard's ability to wax lyrical over his changes in fortune even as he laments his losses: he's both within the story's tragic trajectory and outside it. This dual awareness is driven home most effectively in Richard's "mirror" speech, made after surrendering his crown to the stolid Bolingbroke. In what some interpret as Shakespeare's sly rejoinder to Christopher Marlowe's famous depiction of Helen of Troy in Dr. Faustus, Shakespeare (via Richard) asks piteously, "Was this face the face that every day under his household roof did keep ten thousand men?"

Parkinson's rich, fluid performance is well matched by Mike Nussbaum's affecting John of Gaunt and comically philosophical gardener, Scott Jaeck's surprisingly charismatic Bolingbroke, Steve Pickering's honorable and conflicted Duke of York, and Brian Hamman's swaggering Henry Percy. Felicia P. Fields delivers Alaric Jans's original song with sweet soulfulness and nails the Duchess of York's simultaneously fierce and funny mother love as she pleads for her scheming son's life.

Gaines seamlessly integrates the play's comedy and tragedy: she seems to have an intuitive understanding, like Richard himself, that the two states often exist simultaneously. And she makes bold choices that serve the material, underscoring the brutality and anguish of men desperately fighting to gain and maintain power without losing their souls. In a period flooded with unimaginable images, the mournful final stage picture of this Richard II is startling, dreadful--a portent of bloody years to come.

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