Theater Takeaway: The Gamm’s King Elizabeth

A tale of two acts, King Elizabeth redeems itself with a strong second half and two powerful leads.

“I’ know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” –Elizabeth I


 Imagine your thoughts and feelings being torn in two, rent asunder.
Half of your mind lies groggy, mouth and eyes slack, indecisive. The other half is alert, blood lapping through your veins, resolute.
This is the essence of the Gamm Theatre’s King Elizabeth in both execution and content, a play that both languishes in courtly heaviness and spurts forth in bloody dynamism, a play whose saving grace comes from its lead heroines and their tempestuous relationship.
King Elizabeth tells the tale of the last days of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (Marianna Bassham), as her cousin and co-queen, Elizabeth Tudor (Jeanine Kane), wallows in indecision over what to do with her troublesome relative of the north. Catholic Mary has been accused of fomenting rebellion, specifically an attempted assassination of her Protestant sister.
While on paper it’s a rich plot filled with intrigue, scandal and insanity, the first half of the performance lacked dynamism: it was filled with heavy, droll court politics and lots of it.
While yes, understanding Elizabeth’s role as a female monarch in a court of men is integral to understanding her inner conflict, it was just a bit too dry. Attempts to liven up the first half of the show often fell flat, and the odd array of costumes, some contemporary business attire, some from the fifteenth century and some random ones from the late nineteenth century, made for a sort of jumbled scene.
While the court life of Elizabeth was tiresome (perhaps the play was simply being accurate), the action going on in Scotland was far livelier. We learn that Mary has been stripped of her household and her belongings, and is virtually a prisoner in her own castle. She emerges as a frail, wild-eyed waif of a woman, her curly hair tangled and in all directions, wearing nothing but a nightgown and looking wholly crush-able, like a dove in the hands of a strongman (or woman?).

    “In my end is my beginning.”         –Mary Stuart

The tension between the two women reaches a head in the first act when Mary and Elizabeth finally confront each other — Elizabeth’s acidic, bracing strength pitted against the wailing, whining, pitiful but plotting Mary.
But it’s the second act that gets the blood pumping (literally).
As Elizabeth hems and haws about signing an order for her sister’s execution, Mary becomes entangled in yet another plot to overthrow her cousin, further damning herself.
But it’s easy to pity Mary, with Bassham doing a stellar job of evoking sympathy for this wounded creature, one who wishes to run free like a deer but who is ever-chased by the biting hound.
Kane also does a fabulous job as Elizabeth, her rich, deep voice oozing power, but still able to show indecision, the fallible human being who is surrounded by male vipers nipping at her heels.
In the end, we see Elizabeth waver, a tremble that sends Mary to the chopping block.
While we are spared the gory details, the image of Mary kneeling, arms spread to her sides, neck outstretched and head lifted upwards is chilling. A bright light casts up from below her face, creating shadows and lines that etch the trials and tribulations she has suffered. She frantically whispers the Our Father, until the sound of metal whooshes coldly and the lights are cut.
The play should have stopped there, a poignant, chilling and haunting ending that shows the power Elizabeth wielded, power to kill another queen.
But an epilogue was woven in and an attempt to tie up historical loose ends ultimately diluted the potency of the image of Mary’s death and the brutal power of Elizabeth’s reign.
It was a tale of two acts, one slow, one fast, but lacking the poignant ending to really hit this bloody tale of two queens home.