Washington Shakespeare Company’s then-and-now Mary Stuart October 21 through December 12

For the 20-year-old Washington Shakespeare Company’s first season in its new home in Rosslyn’s Artisphere complex, artistic director Christopher Henley knew he wanted to open big. And so: Richard III, the Bard’s most villainous villain. But what to pair it with? Company members Heather Haney and Sara Barker had performed a scene from Mary Stuart, Friedrich Schiller’s dramatization of the 15th century power struggle between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, last December at WSC’s New Year’s Eve fundraiser. Typically, says Barker, actors use the occasion to tackle their “dream scenes”—often roles they have long odds of playing in a full production. (Barker appeared as King Lear one year, a part that counts as a stretch for a 30ish-year-old woman.) But Barker and Haney coyly admit they were effectively auditioning when they rang in 2010 by donning the crowns of Elizabeth and Mary, respectively—roles they’ll reprise when director Colin Hovde opens Mary Stuart in rep with “Richard” next month. They describe the production—which uses Peter Oswald’s 2005 English adaptation of Schiller’s 200-year-old script—as physical and contemporary, featuring a company of young-for-their roles actors and an emphasis on the theme of how women achieve and maintain power, then and now. Elizabeth is clearly conscious of Mary’s [sex] appeal and her own lack thereof,” Barker says of her character. Haney jumps in: “By contrast, Mary is always very conscious of Elizabeth’s role as very a strong leader; logical and powerful and in control of her country...it’s interesting, the way one aspect of each of their personalities becomes the only aspect of their personality in the public eye.” “Oh my God,” says Barker, “we should do this as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.” Henley says gender politics aren’t the sole peg of the play’s 21st century appeal. After the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, says Henley, “Everyone got so interested not only in Shakespeare, but in his context.” Some scholars believe Shakespeare wrote Richard III in part to curry favor with Queen Elizabeth: The play depicts its titular tyrant’s defeat at the hands of Henry Tudor, Elizabeth’s grandfather. “So it’s fun to do a play about the historical context in which he was writing, along with the plays he actually wrote.”

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