Knife-edge political thriller on Elgin stage in ‘Mary Stuart’

Elsinore ‘brilliantly’ casts 10 in historical drama

Derek L Cook (as Melvil, from left), Arlene Arnone (Hanna), Marisa Snook (Mary Stuart), Mark Brewer (Paulet), Jamie Ewing (Leicester) in Elsinore's "Mary Stuart" in 2024

In June 1800, the verse play “Mary Stuart” premiered in Weimar, Germany. Consisting of five acts, the original play written by Friedrich Schiller (as “Maria Stuart”) was translated and adapted by British playwright Peter Oswald centuries later. Oswald’s version, mixing poetry and prose, opened in London’s West End in 2005.

I can see why director and Elsinore, A Theatre Ensemble co-founder Thomas Neumann of Belvidere chose “Mary Stuart” to close out its second season in Elgin. It’s a devastating piece of historical drama: two queens, political sycophants, a murder plot and regal dominance make for a captivating theatrical event.

The fact that it’s true makes it even more intriguing.

“Mary Stuart” relates the rivalry between cousins Elizabeth and Mary, whose relationship fell to the political maneuvering between England and Scotland in the late 1500s. It is a fictional account of a meeting between Catholic Mary, hoping for a reprieve from 19 years of imprisonment, and Protestant Elizabeth, her jailer and queen hesitant to sign her death warrant. The physical meeting as far as anyone knows never happened in history; in real life, the two only communicated through written correspondence.

Mary has been held in jail nominally for the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, but actually because of her claim to the throne of England, currently occupied by Elizabeth. As the play evolves, we are introduced to members of Queen Elizabeth I‘s court, and the plot and attempt to free Mary.

Neumann has kept “Mary Stuart” well-paced, and has cast his ensemble of 10 brilliantly. They are extremely dedicated, energetic and versatile performers, who keep the tension and emotions high. As a director, Neumann consistently is becoming a force to be reckoned with.

The supporting ensemble members portray multiple roles, move the minimalist set under Stage Manager Maureen Corcoran’s smooth guidance, and even provide their own costumes.

Frank Rose of Elgin is Sir William, Count Bellievre, Drury and the Page. His rendering of Sir William’s breakdown and confusion about Mary’s execution notice (aka catastrophic regicide) is amazing. Rose also is involved in a realistic fight sequence, and is very credible with his conflicts of duty.

Hunter Johnson is delightful as the French ambassador Count Aubespine, and is a strict and upstanding sheriff.

Derek L. Cook of Wheaton makes his Elsinore debut portraying Mary Stuart’s loyal friend Melvil, and is the wise and wonderfully calming advisor Shrewsbury. His audible sigh after a furious Queen Elizabeth’s tirade speaks volumes, and his expressive face comments on the actions of all present. He is exquisite.

Mark Brewer (as Paulet, from left), Lori Rohr(Elizabeth), Jamie Ewing (Leicester), Derek L Cook (Talbot), Marisa Snook (Mary Stuart), Gabor Mark (Burleigh) in Elsinore's "Mary Stuart" in 2024

Well-known to Chicago area audiences, Arlene Arnone of St. Charles is Hanna Kennedy, Mary Stuart’s loyal and dedicated companion and nurse since childhood. When not worried or pedantic, Arnone makes her character a fiercely defensive spitfire who is with Mary to the end.

Gabor Mark of Barrington is the manipulating justice, Lord Burleigh, and he portrays him as arrogant, pompous, dismissive and irritating from the second he strides onto the stage. There is no doubt he hates Mary Stuart, but does have a strong sense of duty. If you’re looking for a villain, Mark is the one in this piece. He is compelling.

In the duplicitous role of Mortimer, Evin McQuistion is at first dedicated to Mary, then deceives her when the plot to rescue her fails. Is he villain or rebel? McQuistion is an astutely capable actor who handles soliloquies passionately, and has the physical prowess to handle both the romance and fight choreography involving his character. McQuistion is exceptional.

Mark Brewer is Amias Paulet, Mary Stuart’s Jailer. He is incorruptible with a stainless reputation; he may guard Queen Elizabeth’s good name, but he’s always honest with Mary Stuart. He has a conscience, and Brewer makes him both credible and admirable.

Jamie Ewing (as Leicester, from left). Lori Rohr (Queen Elizabeth I) in "Mary Stuart" by Elsinore in 2024

Elsinore co-founder Jamie Ewing of Crystal Lake is Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, the Earl of Leicester. Ewing portrays him as a dignified, rational man. Once engaged to Mary Stuart, he gave up “truth and beauty to pursue ambition” with Queen Elizabeth. He is the major character who attempts to persuade Queen Elizabeth to meet with Mary Stuart; his self-doubt scene in Act 2 is a strong and powerful one. As always, Ewing is engaging and interesting to watch. He has that dramatic instinct and is a charmer.

Of course, “Mary Stuart” has two delicious roles for women: Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.

Marisa Snook of Woodstock is a fascinating Mary Stuart, who portrays both shame and sorrow amidst kindness, pride and nobility. She makes clear all she fears and hopes for in prison with no books, no music, “not even the comfort of a mirror.” Snook is a phenomenal actress, but her particular descent into the acrimonious argument with Queen Elizabeth caused by her unwillingness to submit to the Queen’s wishes is incredible – you’ll hold your breath. Snook makes Mary Stuart intensely seductive and riveting.

The third Elsinore co-founder, Lori Rohr, is Queen Elizabeth I. She is a stunner – majestic, poised. And through her portrayal, we see Elizabeth’s cautiousness, shrewdness, rage, revenge and displeasure. Every time Rohr confidently sweeps on stage, she demands our attention. Rohr is a luminous actress; there is no shortage of spectacle with her Queen.

Both Snook and Rohr are poignant and irresistible; and chemistry abounds on that stage.

Ultimately, “Mary Stuart” is about two women in similar positions. Each betrayed by false friends and fears, the two flawed women needed to learn about trust and needed to heed their own reminders: “do not forget that nothing stands forever” (Mary Stuart) and “the world thinks through its eyes” (Queen Elizabeth).

Elsinore has produced an appealing insight into two historically significant figures with the play “Mary Stuart,” and is to be congratulated.

(Second-floor theater is not wheelchair accessible. Parking is on the street or at nearby public garage.)

• Regina Belt-Daniels has been interested in the history of Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I ever since visiting Scotland and the many sites they inhabited. A director and actress, this is her 10th anniversary of writing theater reviews for Shaw Local News Network.


• WHAT: “Mary Stuart” by Elsinore, A Theatre Ensemble

• WHERE: The Theatre at Side Street, 15 ½ Ziegler Court, Elgin

• WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through April 28

• COST: $22; $18 for students, seniors, military