The Davis Shakespeare Festival is presenting a classic that the Bard didn’t write, about the deadly conflict between two contending queens in the 1500s, each claiming the throne.
The brooding drama “Mary Stuart” — written by Friedrich Schiller in 1800 — depicts a complex, fateful power struggle that divided England in Shakespeare’s era. Queen Elizabeth controls the throne, but is being challenged by Mary Stuart, the exiled Queen of Scotland.
Elizabeth imprisons Mary, and holds the upper hand. But Elizabeth’s advisers tell her Mary will always present a threat.
Burleigh: There can be no negotiation with her, or her house. You must kill, or be killed. If she lives, you die. If she dies, you live!
Elizabeth — whose own mother was beheaded — is very reluctant to order Mary’s public execution. But Mary worries that Elizabeth might have her assassinated, or poisoned.
Mary: There are more obscure procedures for silencing my right available to England’s ruler. It is easier to hire a killer than arrange an execution. That is what makes me shiver, sir. Whenever I eat or drink, I wonder if the fare comes with my sister’s love.
Elizabeth’s advisers repeatedly urge her to act. But Elizabeth is unhappy with her options, and plays for time. And as Elizabeth struggles to decide, this play turns into a pressure cooker, with religious and international factors turning up the heat. Director Rob Salas skillfully magnifies the tension as the plot thickens. Eventually, the messy situation boils over.
Elizabeth: Sir Brigham, what is that noise, what is this uproar in the city?
Brigham: My queen, your people are surrounding the palace. They demand to see you.
Elizabeth: What do they want from me?
Brigham: London is in uproar. They say that your life is in danger. The pope’s assassins are everywhere. The Catholics are about to free Mary Stuart, and proclaim her queen.
This strong production has powerful performances by visiting Bay Area professional Sharon Rietkerk as Mary, and veteran Sacramento professional Jamie Jones as Elizabeth. They excel as the dueling queens, and their big scene together features flaring tempers and a catastrophic outcome.
Schiller’s “Mary Stuart” stands as a great tragedy, though most of us have never seen it. You really should experience this classic, and Davis Shakespeare hits the bull's-eye with this taut, lean staging.
The Davis Shakespeare production of “Mary Stuart” continues through Aug. 5 at the Veterans Memorial Theatre in Davis.