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Queens play out cerebral game of thrones

Sock and Buskin’s ‘Mary Stuart,’ directed by Emma Johnson ’14, reigns in Leeds this weekend

The abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko would seem an unexpected interlocutor in the court politics of Elizabethan England. Not so in Sock and Buskin’s production of “Mary Stuart” —  an enormous reproduction of his work in red, black and gold hangs above the stage.

The allusion to post-war America’s preeminent colorist ­— who once claimed his interest in “expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom” — is a deft inclusion in a play equally obsessed with these themes.

Written by Friedrich Schiller, presented in a new translation by Peter Oswald and directed by Emma Johnson ’14, “Mary Stuart” is a portrait of two women struggling to maintain authority and humanity in a world dominated by men. Despite the preeminence of the ruling women, a bona fide parade of bearded advisors constitutes the bulk of the cast.

“The play is about power,” Johnson said. “The way women wield power when they have it and how they fight for power when they don’t have it.”

The drama centers on Elizabeth I’s precarious grasp on the English throne, a claim destabilized by the threat of her cousin Mary Stuart, whom she has imprisoned on charges of conspiracy to regicide. Both Elizabeth’s attempts to preserve her crown and Mary’s desperate ploys to escape execution are complicated by the duplicitous male attendants who carry out their orders.

Sensitive and agile, Sarah Gage ’15 is a veritable force of nature as the titular Queen of Scots. Her muscular wit and sinewy composure befits the royal body. Patrick Madden ’15 is a formidable opponent as Elizabeth. Johnson’s decision to cast the Tudor Queen as a man in drag boldly upends the complex gender dynamics at work in Elizabeth’s self-presentation as the “female king.”

“And so they show me that they think of me not as a man, and a king as I have ruled them, so I believed, but simply as a woman,” Elizabeth declares in frustration.

Madden reigns with poise and ferocity. He moves with elegance and authority, annunciates with precision and energy. His careful negotiation of Elizabeth’s ill-fated romantic encounters are devastating.

“I believe in the neutral-bodied actor,” Madden said. “Playing this character is just a matter of figuring out how she ticks and what she’s like, where she’s been and what she’s been through.”

But “Mary Stuart” is much more than an exercise in identity politics. Fast-paced, loquacious and cerebral, it anatomizes the exchange of monarchical authority in a shifting geopolitical and religious landscape.

Staged atop an octagonal wooden platform, the set is eerily reminiscent of a prison cell. Incarceration serves as a fitting model for women who are constantly being shouted at, looked upon, flattered and dissected. Johnson has created an echo chamber wherein power, desire and identity collide in a series of explosive encounters.

Schiller’s interpretation of events is a story of early modern England as originally written by a German philosopher in the wake of the French Revolution, according to dramaturg Anna Rotman ’14.5. Accordingly, anxieties about freedom, human dignity and injustice are in constant circulation on stage.

Johnson complicates this framing with a host of inventive contemporary flourishes. The costumes are Elizabethan silhouettes punctuated by punk accents. The narrative is animated by swells of repetitive string figures a la Phillip Glass. And then there’s the Rothko, installed above the fray, bearing witness.

The climactic confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth, which historically never happened, is a collision between two women who have never met but are both intimately acquainted with the emotional isolation of female rule.

Elizabeth’s inevitable triumph extinguishes her only peer. Viewers are left with a woman on her throne — in control but utterly alone.

“Mary Stuart” runs Dec. 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. in Leeds Theater.


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