High-stakes clash between queens in classic ‘Mary Stuart’ at Little Theatre of Alexandria

Friedrich Schiller's fictional collision between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots still causes sparks in this impressive and gripping production.

Mary Queen of Scots’ life was full of drama. Crowned at six days old and executed at age 44, she was party to international intrigues, political plots, religious strife, bloodshed, bad romances, and kangaroo courts. She ruled well, led her troops into battle, abdicated under duress, and spent 20 years under house arrest. But there is one scene history never gave her, a face-to-face meeting with her cousin and rival for the English throne, Queen Elizabeth I. Here, theater provides. In 1800, German playwright Friedrich Schiller imagined their meeting in his play Mary Stuart. In 2023, their fictional collision still causes sparks, as it does in the Little Theatre of Alexandria’s impressive production of Schiller’s play, directed by Kathleen Barth, running now through May 13.

Paul Donahoe, Sarah Cusenza, Maria Ciarrochhi, and Kirk Lambert in ‘Mary Stuart.’ Photo by Matt Liptak.

The story of Mary Stuart can quippily be summed up as “How do you solve a problem like Mary?” A court of English noblemen has convicted the Scottish queen — on possibly shaky grounds — of trying to bump off her noble kin. Mary (Sarah Cusenza) maintains her innocence and rejects the court’s standing to try her, a foreign queen, at all. Even imprisoned, she holds sway over England’s Catholic population. The situation has backed Elizabeth (Maria Ciarrocchi) into a corner while questions surround her own claim to the throne.  Extending her cousin mercy might come back to bite her, but executing her could also have dire consequences.

Cusenza and Ciarocchi are well up to the task of humanizing these entwined historical figures, often portrayed as simply symbols or ciphers. Cusenza’s Mary is sanguine, cherubic, and proud, with a full-throated Scottish brogue. Her movements are natural and her eyes frequently raise toward heaven. Ciarocchi brings a shrill, haughty petulance to the Virgin Queen, performative and calculating but not entirely unsympathetic. The only woman in a court of men, she is constantly aware of, and often beholden to, the judgments and jockeying of others. Much of the play depicts how the virtues and vices — real and perceived — of these two women are bandied about in the name of political expediency.

Maria Ciarrochhi, Sarah Cusenza, Sally Cusenza, and Paul Donahoe in ‘Mary Stuart.’ Photo by Matt Liptak.

Barth and her cast keep the stakes high and make Schiller’s plotty play — five acts of secrets, stratagems, shifting loyalties, betrayals, raised and dashed hopes, wise council, and plausible deniability — not only clear but at times gripping. Matt Liptak’s clever set, a red brick Tudor castle, both a palace and prison, limits Barth’s composition, but it does have a trick up its sleeve too good to reveal here. Janice Rivera’s sound and Matthew Cheney’s lights help heighten important moments.

Among the full cast’s good work, John Paul Odle is roguishly appealing and appalling as Mortimer. John Barclay Burns brings first levity and then stirring grace in a pair of small but impactful roles.

For a play written over 200 years ago about events 200 years prior to that, Mary Stuart resonates today amid the troubling questioning of presidential succession, the continued struggles of female leaders, the testy dynamic between the governing and governed, and the fraying relationship of justice and might. The Little Theatre of Alexandra deserves much credit for producing such a weighty and timely play, and producing it well.

Running Time: Three hours, including a 15-minute intermission

Schiller’s Mary Stuart, in a new version by Peter Oswald, plays through May 13, 2023 (Wednesday to Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 3 p.m.), at The Little Theatre of Alexandria at 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria, VA.  Tickets ($24, with a $3 fee) can be purchased at the door, by email, and online.

The playbill for Mary Stuart is online here.

Content Advisory (from the theater): This show contains adult themes, including an instance of non-consensual sexual contact (without nudity), onstage violence with swords and daggers, and an onstage depiction of suicide (a character stabs himself onstage).

COVID Safety: Masks are required while inside the auditorium during evening and matinee performances. Masks are strongly recommended but optional in the lobby, green room, and restrooms.


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