The Washington Shakespeare Company is a two-decade old theater company situated in Arlington, VA that my family has patronized, on and off, for much of their lifespan, my sister worked at occasionally in her younger years, and even I was employed by once when I was 14. They’ve had mediocre productions succeed, fantastic productions flop, I believe have been on the verge of folding more than once, and perhaps are a touch hit or miss, when all is said and done. After living their life these twenty years in a renovated garage, this year they moved into a new building, a former museum Arlington is now trying to turn into an Artisphere, as it is labelled, with two theaters on the second floor and a gallery on the third. Alas, their problems are still showing; my parents and I originally had tickets to see Mary Stuart three weeks ago, and had to have them rescheduled to last night because the lead actress got sick and there was no understudy.
Their productions of Richard III and Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, both of which are running right now, compliment each other a bit, especially with the political themes emphasized in both, with neither claiming any longer to be real history. Both were bare-bones productions; Richard III had only a raised platform on stage, while Mary Stuart made copious use of wooden chairs, everything in black. Mary Stuart was modern dress, while Richard III claimed in the program to be set in a sci-fi future, though quite frankly if the program hadn’t said that I wouldn’t have realized it. Even the music felt similar, despite the change from Gregorian chant to techno.
Also, both plays happen to be composed of a lot of long speeches. But here the two productions took opposite approaches. Richard III muddied the speeches by trying to turn the play from the star vehicle it’s designed as into an ensemble piece, which might have been unwise, as it diluted their power, despite the spectacular cast; the women in particular were very strong, and that includes Adrienne Nelson as Buckingham and Annie Houston as Stanley, since the future allows for women in the political mix(particularly potent with Stanley, since she now becomes a distressed mother trying to save her son), but especially Mundy Spears as Anne, who was played almost as a mad woman, and stole all her scenes; the scenes with the originally female characters might have been the strongest. Mary Stuart, meanwhile, allows all the speechmaking to happen without distraction, which also might have been unwise, because Schiller is not Shakespeare, and a few lines cut here and there would have made the play drag less.
Both plays, interesting enough, also got better in their second act. That was when the speeches in Richard III got less impeded, and the ensemble idea reached its strength with the ghosts of Richard’s victims all coming in together rather than one by one, after having intruded early by taking the lines of other characters, generating a much more real feeling of haunting. It was also when Schiller reached the confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth that’s pretty much the point of his play, and its great shining moment. It also gave the three underling characters their big moments, which was helpful, since the higher-ranked characters are really too good at for forfeiting any sympathy we have for them, and that includes Elizabeth, after she pretty much murders her poor Secretary of State for her symbolic and emotional convenience; the author was definitely favoring Mary here, who comes out as still sympathetic.
The two productions are nearing the end of their runs, but Schiller’s play is definitely worth a look at, and even Richard III has its moments. The audiences have looked pretty good the two nights I’ve been there, so for the moment, the move is working out well for the company.