Theater Review: Heavy Are The Heads That Wear The Crowns In 'King Elizabeth'

May 8, 2017

At the Gamm Theatre these nights they are taking a look at events from the 16th century, the days of powerful Kings and Queens, which, it turns out, are not all that different from our times. 

Bill Gale has the review.

Sure, you remember Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth One, Queen of England. You know all about their battles with each other, and themselves. You're aware of the murderous turns and betrayals galore back in, say, 1568.

Oh, no? Not so much? Well, me either. But at the Gamm's brand new play called “King Elizabeth” you’ll hear a whole lot about those times and these folks. In some ways “King Elizabeth” makes a provocative look into worlds and centuries far away and then attempts to show that things haven't changed all that much.

Gamm's artistic director, Tony Estrella you see, has taken it on himself to look at a play first done in 1800. That was Friedrich Schiller's “Mary Stuart,” a classical work of art, rarely done today but never forgotten.

Estrella has said that he began “King Elizabeth” during the last presidential election when he, along with many of us, thought that a woman was going to become President of the United States. Well, we know how that turned out. But Estrella drove on, looking in at ancient days for similarities and changes with today.

The result is a work of high drama, with forceful staging, and fine performances that perhaps goes too far in a 2 ½ hour performance, including an intermission. “King Elizabeth” has much to say but might have been shortened to better effect.

The play first looks into the court of Queen Elizabeth where, despite great respect for her position, the place is scheming-filled. Lords love England, respect the Monarch, and do multiple things to advance themselves and their beliefs. Elizabeth is shown as a woman who knows her power, her reach, but is sometimes unable to make decision on things such as what to do with her pesky cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary, you see, became Queen of France at an early age. That didn't work out. She came back to Britain and took the throne in Scotland. Didn't sit well in London. Mary was a Roman Catholic, you see; Elizabeth, a Protestant. Trouble there, too.

Estrella took on the chore of directing the production as well as writing it and he certainly got fine performance from his Queens.  Jeanine Kane turns Elizabeth into almost a double character. She's wonderfully powerful as a leader who knows all the rules and uses them. Then, she fall into weakness when she must make the fatal decision concerning what to do with cousin Mary.

As Mary Stuart, Marianna Bassham is at once a pulsing, weeping, driven, lost woman. I've never seen an actor weep as much on stage. But Bassham makes it work in a stellar performance.  Others, especially Wendy Overly as Mary's loving nurse, and Justin Blanchard as a conniving noble, do very well in a difficult play.

So what has “King Elizabeth” got to say? That's debatable. The two women are clearly centerpieces. Both have great beginnings, great emotions. Both fail in difficult decisions. They battle on, give up reluctantly, and are willing soldiers even as they make major mistakes. So, just maybe, they are as good – and as bad – as well, men. That's something that perhaps reaches from the 1600s to today.

“King Elizabeth” continues at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket through May 28th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.