An Appropriate Setting For Play About Fates Of 2 British Queens

Posted: April 07, 1999

For Site Installation Theatre Ensemble (SITE), the place is the thing.

SITE's current production, the East Coast premiere of Dacia Maraini's Mary Stuart, is set in the rotunda of Eastern State Penitentiary, a location that drips with more than just atmosphere.

Audience members pass through one of the prison's damp, crumbling corridors, don hard hats, and huddle in the chilly makeshift theater to watch this homoerotic, feminist deconstruction of the 16th-century saga of Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots.

Susan Adelizzi's set makes use of the prison's stone walls and arching doorways, and adds tattered curtains, a bed and a throne to the playing space. The design effectively conveys the notion that Elizabeth and Mary are both trapped by the politics and passions of their times.

Unfortunately, the audience shares their ordeal somewhat too intimately in this declamatory rendering of Maraini's rhetorically bloated and sometimes incoherent play.

Translated from the Italian by Christopher Pearcy with Nicolette Kay, Maraini's 1983 drama is based - very loosely - on Friedrich Schiller's verse tragedy Mary Stuart. But it's far more reminiscent of Jean Genet in its obsessive focus on the deadly character of master-servant relations - Genet overlaid with deliberately anachronistic feminist diatribes.

Instead of a rich panoply of historical characters, we get the excellent Sonja Robson as Elizabeth and Leigh Smiley Grace as a somewhat less regal Mary. Robson also plays Mary's loving lady-in-waiting, Kennedy, while Grace is both Elizabeth's servant Nanny and Lettice, the woman who weds Elizabeth's favorite, Leicester.

Instead of Schiller's blank Shakespearean verse, we get Elizabeth taunting Lettice with a laundry list of slang terms for a man's sexual organ and her frequent, decidedly unmonarchical recourse to various four-letter words.

The story of the embattled relationship between these royal cousins - both descended from Henry VII and rival claimants to England's throne - is inherently fascinating, although nearly impossible to follow from the play alone. (SITE's program provides some useful historical background.)

Because Roman Catholics never accepted the legitimacy of Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn, they considered Elizabeth a bastard and Mary Stuart the rightful queen of England. Protestants, on the other hand, had no desire for a Catholic ruler, and were not receptive even to the idea of Mary's succeeding Elizabeth someday.

When Mary fled a Scottish prison after a Protestant revolt in her own country, she sought refuge in England. Big mistake. Elizabeth tossed her in jail, where she became the focus of various plots and subplots.

Maraini's play disrupts the story's narrative thrust with dream sequences; with Mary's reenactments of her own past struggles in Scotland (where she married two of her three husbands); and with Elizabeth's conversations with invisible advisers.

The dramaturgy is confusing: Given the absence of supporting players, we're not always sure whether scenes are taking place in the present, the past or the characters' heads.

Director Robert Davis didn't seem quite sure what do with this ungainly piece, which perhaps even the most stylish direction couldn't rescue.

Robson, always worth seeing, makes Maraini's bizarre Elizabeth at least intermittently compelling. Grace is not half as imposing, but she gradually becomes convincing as the doomed Scottish queen. No one, on the other hand, could make the servants' roles, and their love-hate relationships with their respective monarchs, ring true.

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