The Last Days of Mary Stuart: An Electro-Opera: Theater Review

Vigorous historically inspired musical poised midway betwixt familiar idioms of both the mainstream and the underground.

The Queen of Scots faces off with Queen Elizabeth against a nightclub backdrop in Silver Lake.

Mary, Queen of Scots (Marianne Thompson), may never have actually met her nemesis cousin of some remove, Queen Elizabeth I (Laila Ayad), but their clash of ideology and temperament was so vivid and fateful that dramatists and composers have since found their confrontation irresistible. The original touchstone remains the 1800 Maria Stuart of Friedrich Schiller (later adapted to bel canto opera by Donizetti), which still discernibly provides the skeletal dramaturgy for this scrappy musical that splits the difference between show tune rock and slightly retro electronica.

Decked out in club style with a bar in the back, a few VIP cocktail tables in front and most of the audience standing like groundlings behind, the tiny Son of Semele space with its bare walls creates a lively sonic sanctum for the amplified guitar, synthesizer and drum machine (earplugs hawked preshow). Indeed, at the first performance opening night, the jams were kicked to repeated blown fuses, halting the proceedings but adding immeasurably to the street cred of the experience. (The heavy reliance on bravura lighting effects, a necessity for Poverty Row spectacle, no doubt added to the draw down from a grid evidently overtaxed by the reduction in overall power supply from the shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear plant.)

Atmospherics aside, the text, rendered entirely lyrically, remains an earnest one that may not endeavor to illuminate the historical facts but seriously grapples with the issues of legitimacy of power and dueling institutional churches. Nevertheless, setting such words to this kind of music inevitably conjures an expository style eerily reminiscent of a Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell, scarcely the most avant-garde medium of expression. Who knew writer-director Becca Wolff, best known locally for her stewardship of the IAMA Theatre Company, could so channel her inner Andrew Lloyd-Webber?

In short, while much intelligent craft is afoot, this show remains most fundamentally a hoot. Shrewdly brisk at just under an hour, it strikes an entertaining balance of purpose and play that can brazen its way past the occasional clunky rhyme or risible excess. The game actors project both posturing gravitas and goofy absurdity with equanimity, and the minimalist musical figures, while somewhat short of Philip Glass (or a real dance club vibe, for that matter), propel everything with just the right amount of grandiloquent energy. 

Venue: Son of Semele Theatre, Silver Lake (runs through July 20)

Cast: Marianne Thompson, Laila Ayad, Alex Knox, Daniel Stewart, Ryan Adlaf

Direction, book & lyrics: Becca Wolff

Music: Byron Kahr & John Nixon

Lighting designer: Elizabeth Harper

Production & costume designer: Molly Erin Kahr

Sound designer: Adlaf

Choreography: Gwenmarie White

Presented by Wolff & Jacob Padrón for Tilted Field Productions