The stage is set for a political convention. The candidates prepare their final campaign speeches before they go before the crowd. A pragmatist and an idealist are going head to head, and the people must decide which to choose as their leader.
The stage this week isn’t in Iowa or New Hampshire, however. It’s in Baylor’s own Mabee Theatre, where Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart will face off again as political rivals in a hotly contested political race.
“Mary Stuart,” originally written by Friedrich Schiller and performed in 1800, shows the legendary standoff between Queen Elizabeth of England and her cousin Mary Stuart, the Catholic queen of Scotland and pretender to the English throne. Elizabeth holds her cousin under house arrest to prevent her from seizing power, and must, by the play’s end, decide her cousin’s final fate.
Director David Jortner, associate professor of theater, decided to move the events of the play from the 16th century to the present day, turning Elizabeth and Mary into fierce political rivals in the midst of election season.
“The questions it asks about who should lead, why they should lead and what we want in a leader seemed very contemporary,” Jortner said. “I thought we could bring it to the 21st century and explore the idea of public performance versus private anxieties a little more.”
The conflict between practical, powerful Elizabeth and passionate, impulsive Mary is reimagined in the context of a contemporary political election. Live video and Twitter feeds flash behind them as idealistic Mary takes on the politically seasoned Elizabeth. Alliances form and fail, the electorate is put to the test and the two women must come to terms with their relationship and their vying bids for power.
In this election, images, soundbites and public opinion are perhaps more important than the candidates themselves.
“‘Mary Stuart’ plays with the idea of a political campaign, where all that matters is the people’s idea of a political candidate from the media, and not what they actually do,” said Dallas senior Christina Ward, who plays Elizabeth.
Jortner chose the play and began planning his adaptation a year ago. While the production was cleverly timed to coincide with this spring’s political primaries, he didn’t quite anticipate the many parallels that would arise between the play and reality.
“I knew that this would be going on during primary season and it would be a nice parallel, but we had no idea that primary season would be such a huge thing. Nobody saw the Trump thing coming, so it’s great that we’re doing this and we’re having this national conversation simultaneously,” Jortner said. “There are moments where you’ll be like, ‘Oh, that guy looks just like [a political figure].’ You can identify who they are.”
While the political elements make the play relevant in the midst of election season, Jortner also chose “Mary Stuart” because of its unusual combination of two strong female characters. He said many plays do not feature one, let alone two, women in starring roles. Jortner said Ward and Alhambra, Calif., senior Devin Perry, who plays Mary, had the rare opportunity to inhabit the roles of two powerful but deeply flawed women.
Ward said it was initially difficult for her to find sympathy for her character, who is frequently forced to make decisions that may seem heartless.
“It’s the most challenging role I’ve played. I had to figure out how to make her act out of insecurity and not out of malice and spite,” Ward said.
Ward said this production of “Mary Stuart” brings Elizabeth’s insecurities into focus. She can only do what her people want, and she asks whether she will ever be able to speak or act for herself. In the spotlight, she feels powerless, ruled by the public even from her place of power.
Perry said she had the opposite problem with her own character of Mary Stuart. She had to find the character’s strength, the sense of power she retains even when she is opposed by Elizabeth.
“Something I really had to learn and prepare for is that she is a royal and she has power. I had to think about her posture and the way she relates to people. Initially I wanted to make her act small around people, but she’s a queen and she wouldn’t do that,” Perry said. “You treat yourself as a queen if nobody else does.”
Perry said Mary’s flaws come, not out of a sense of insecurity, but from her concern for other people and for what she considers to be right. She said even though Mary can act impulsively, she is always motivated by her desire for justice.
The contrast between these two characters is revealed in their costuming as well. Costume designer Sylvia Fuhrken looked to different contemporary models for each of their wardrobes. Practical Elizabeth is outfitted in power suits like Hillary Clinton’s and Condoleezza Rice’s. Mary, meanwhile, wears ladylike dresses festooned in lace and pearls, modeled after pieces worn by modern royals.
“For Mary Stuart, I looked at Kate Middleton and the queen of Spain,” Fuhrken said. “I wanted to make it really modern, so I used neoprene fabric, which is used in scuba diving suits, but I put it in a more classic and feminine sort of style.”
While such costume details reveal the differences between the two characters throughout the play, they only meet on stage one time. The confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary forms the dramatic centerpiece of the play, and allows the strengths and flaws of these two women to come in direct conflict with one another.
“I wish that we saw more dynamic, multi-layered, intelligent female characters in stories now. This whole play revolves around Mary and Elizabeth’s lives and stories. I hope that people will begin to see see that women are strong, women are intelligent, and women are worthy of respect,” Perry said.
“Mary Stuart” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. today through Sunday in the Mabee Theatre, with additional performances at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at baylor.edu/theatre.