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Review: Joslyn Castle is perfect stage for royal drama ‘Mary Stuart’

Brigit St. Brigit Theatre is known for staging some of its shows at the Joslyn Castle, palatial home to George and Sarah Joslyn in Omaha’s early days.

The dwelling is resplendent with shiny oak floors, trim and wainscoting; ornate wallpaper; and decorative ceilings. It’s as close to a real castle as you can find on the Plains.

And, theatrically, it was the perfect venue for “Mary Stuart,” a play about British royalty in the 1500s that’s the theater’s final show of the season. Add director Lara Marsh, a compelling script and a cast featuring some of Omaha’s most accomplished actors, and you have a remarkable night of drama.

The play is the story of the woman known as Mary, Queen of Scots, who spent 19 years imprisoned in England. After she was accused of murdering her husband, she fled there seeking help from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII. That help never came; aides, including chief adviser Lord Burleigh, convinced Elizabeth to keep Mary locked up because she was a threat to Elizabeth’s monarchy.

Written in 1800 by Friedrich Schiller and adapted in 2005 by Peter Oswald, “Mary Stuart” is as full of intrigue as any modern political work — think “Scandal”-style scheming — but with way cooler costumes created by Wesley Pourier, featuring luscious fabrics and elaborate trims.

As the lead characters, longtime area actors Delaney Driscoll and Charleen J.B. Willoughby are a force to be reckoned with. Driscoll gives Mary a mild, authentic French accent (the queen spent a good portion of her life in France) and expertly portrays a woman driven nearly mad by her long confinement. Willoughby, meanwhile, is at turns tough, flirty and chronically indecisive as the easily swayed Elizabeth. The scene in which they meet (an event scholars say never happened) is one of the best I’ve seen in a play this year.

Other standouts include Eddie McGonigal as Mortimer, who plans to free Mary but descends into madness himself, John Hatcher as Burleigh, David Mainelli as the two-timing Earl of Leicester and Eric Grant-Leanna as Davison, the Keeper of Writs, who’s responsible for the play’s most humorous scene when Elizabeth gives him a confusing order.

Marsh and company come up with innovative ways to use the castle’s interesting space. The play essentially has a set that came with the building — it takes place in a room with an elevated platform that looks like it could have been used for a chapel or for organ or piano performances. Seats are placed on either side of the room, and the action occurs on a fairly narrow strip of hard-wood floor in the middle. Actors entered and exited up stairs to the home’s foyer.

The room’s chandeliers, supplemented by several stage lights, provided ample lighting.

For the most part, it worked, though I was quite uncomfortable by the end because the seats were extremely close together, providing little leg room, and it became fairly hot on a warm May evening.

Small annoyances, to be sure, and nothing that would keep me from solidly recommending “Mary Stuart.” Omaha is fortunate that Brigit St. Brigit is committed to offering such classic works of art.

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