Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Mary Stuart

The Vortex Theatre
Review by Rob Spiegel

Also see Dean's review of Mrs. Warren's Profession 2.0 and Wally's review of The Water Engine

Image courtesy of The Vortex Theatre
You don't see a lot of plays by Friedrich Schiller these days, but he was quite celebrated in late 1700s and early 1800s Germany. In addition to writing plays, he was also a poet, physician, historian and philosopher. He had a close relationship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and he is considered by many to be Europe's best playwright, after Shakespeare. Beethoven took one of Schiller's poems to create "Ode to Joy," the final movement of his "Ninth Symphony".

Schiller's plays were mostly histories. He told the stories of William Tell and Joan of Arc in addition to the tragedy of Mary Stuart. Mary was the Queen of Scotland, though she spent much of her young life in France. She returned to Scotland, created a royal mess, then fled to London expecting support from her cousin, Elizabeth I. Unfortunately, Elizabeth and her courtesans recalled that Mary had years earlier claimed she was the legitimate Queen of England and that Elizabeth was a bastard since she was the child of one of Henry VIII's subsequent marriages. Mary was a Catholic who didn't recognize subsequent marriages.

There were plenty of Catholics in England who hadn't made the switch to Henry VIII's Church of England change, and they believed Mary was correct. In the face of that dissent, Elizabeth imprisoned Mary on the trumped-up charged that Mary was plotting an assassination. Schiller's play considers what Elizabeth must do about Mary now that she's been held in prison by Elizabeth for 18 years.

Schiller has a great feel for the ugly side of politics—the kind where the Queen can cause an execution without seeming to have ordered it or even desired it. Court intrigue is complicated and nasty in Schiller's telling. At any moment, nearly any of the Queen's men may find himself dispatched to the prison tower, banished from England, or condemned to death. Her men themselves are a shifty lot, professing love for the Queen while plotting behind her back.

What we see through the two and a half hours of drama is one duplicitous move after another. It can be hard to keep alliances straight, as few characters in the play are forthright in their allegiance to either Elizabeth or Mary. Keeping it straight as the shifts come and go is half the fun of the drama.

Director Fredrick Ponzlov has done a great job of casting the main roles of Elizabeth (Kathleen Welker) and Mary (Debi Kierst). Another terrific casting choice is Julian Bonfiglio as Mortimer, an ally of Mary who was created by Schiller. As long as one of these three characters is on stage, the action pops with energy. The great climax of the action comes when Elizabeth and Mary confront each other—a wonderful dramatic clash that didn't actually take place in history.

Welker captures Elizabeth's range of emotions, from insecure to forceful, from empathetic to cruel. Her costume restricts her movement, so it's all in her face and voice. She does a terrific job of capturing all of Elizabeth's (often subtle) emotional swings.

Kierst in some ways has easier work of it. Mary is wild and desperate. As the victim in this drama, she has no need for poise under pressure or masking her emotions for the sake of appearance. She knows she's likely facing death and she rebels at that dark, impending sentence with every cell. Kierst takes Mary's desperation over the edge at moments, but it mostly works. Sometimes it's a bit ragged, but I'm not sure that's a criticism.

Bonfiglio is a bit of a surprise as Mortimer. You can't take your eyes off this wild card of an actor. He comes to the play as one of Ponzlov's students who happens to have landed an impressive list of film and TV credits. He is originally from Panama and now lives in New Mexico. I'm looking forward to seeing more of his performances.

The set by Petifoger is nicely sparse. Lighting designer Shannon Flynn and sound designer Marty Epstein also deliver excellent work.

Mary Stuart, through March 11, 2018, at The Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque NM. The show starts at 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2:00 pm on Sundays. General admission tickets are $22, $19 for ATG members, and $15 for students and those in an entertainment union. You can buy tickets online at or by phone at 247-8600.