Who are the most powerful women in the world?
If you’re talking about the Renaissance, it would likely include names like Queen Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots.
They also happened to be cousins and, in a different sense, adversaries. Eventually and reluctantly, Elizabeth had Mary put to death because of accusations many historians consider false.
The dramatic story appealed to German writer Friedrich Schiller. His play “Maria Stuart” was sympathetic to the Scottish queen; at the end, Elizabeth remains alone, after she blames (male) courtiers for Mary’s death.
Olney Theatre Center has adapted the three-act play into a much-shorter work with far-fewer characters – six actors who play multiple roles – in the intimate setting of Olney’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab with audience members on stage.
Eleasha Gamble is Mary, and Megan Anderson is Elizabeth. Also, in the cast are Chris Genebach, Paul Morella, Mitchell Hébert and Jake Ryan Lozano.
The doubling-up becomes most interesting when an actor is playing two characters with very different personalities, said Jason Loewith, Olney’s artistic director. He both adapted the script Olney is using as well is staging the production.
“I worked on a production of Schiller’s play in 2001,” Loewith said. “It’s an incredible portrait of two of the most amazing women, who were on a collision course. They couldn’t share power, and one had to die for the other.”
The play seems particularly relevant now – a year when there were more women elected to the U.S. Congress than ever before – Loewith added, because the more political power women wield, the more men resist that power.
The set – co-designed by Loewith and Richard Oullette – is minimal; the actors’ costumes, with one exception, are likewise – meant to indicate when the actors shift from one character to another. Assisting the director in the adaptation and other tasks is Katie Ciszek, the dramaturg.
“I read drafts of the script as it developed and asked a lot of questions particularly about character development and whether Jason was getting the message across he wanted to,” Ciszek said. “The play shows how complex the relationship of the two women was, how they wanted friendship.”
One challenge, said Loewith, was trying to work on language that’s “incredibly overwritten and declamatory, with weepy and wailing courtiers. I didn’t want the language to become a barrier.”
Perhaps most significantly, Ciszek said, was the massive amount of research involved. There’s no limit to the amount of research one can do, so you have to decide what’s most critical. Some of that research will be displayed in panels audience members can study.
“We can’t put all of it into a two-page spread of a program,” she said.
Aside from her conflict with Mary, the two women never met, despite the dramatic hook in the play. Elizabeth’s life wasn’t easy. There were many assassinations attempts against her.
Her own father, Henry VIII, had for a time declared her a “bastard” when he had her mother, Anne Boleyn, executed. When her step-sister, Mary I, became Queen, Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London. It was only after the defeat of the Spanish Armada that her throne became more secure.
Ironically, Mary’s son, James, became king of England when the childless Elizabeth passed away.
Mary Stuart runs May 8-June 9 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. www.olneytheatre.org. Box office: 301-924-3400.