The Lifeblood, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble

I was especially excited to see Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Lifeblood because:

A. They are a true Ensemble company, with several members having worked together over decades.
B. The play is written by Glyn Maxwell, a poet, in heightened language.
C. The play deals with the trial of Mary Stuart, in that endlessly interesting time of English history.

So off Ensemble-headed, verse-nerd, Elizabethan geek me went to see my first show at the Phoenix, accompanied by marvelous Midsummer dramaturg, Ingrid Nordstrom. Once there, we bumped into friendly actor types like Kelli Holsopple, Amy Fitts and Tony Moore; confirming that Phoenix attracts good people.

The show itself was fascinating, with Phoenix founder Elise Stone carrying the show through her quick witted and open hearted portrayal of Mary Stuart. Also strong were fellow founder Craig Smith as the eternally loathsome Walsingham and Jason O’Connell as Sir Thomas Gorge, his ambivalent ally in Mary’s destruction. The play is at its strongest when Mary, through sheer force of will and sheen of wit is able to pry Gorge’s allegiance away from Walsingham; though history is the stronger persuader and Gorge follows through with its dread command.

When Maxwell’s nimble verse is batted back and forth by these able players, the play is at its strongest. When the story approaches the trial, however, Maxwell’s play falters, perhaps because we already know the outcome; or perhaps because Maxwell so clearly makes Mary a pure-hearted martyr, and Walsingham, such an irredeemable villain. Moral and historical clarity (even if justified) here rob the drama of its texture and tension. The scenes that follow after, where those responsible for Mary’s death grapple with their guilt, also lacks the fire of the earlier scenes.

But that is a small textual quibble for a very enjoyable evening of theatre. Throughout the play, the Ensemble performs with the passion and connection that I hope such long term collaborations can create. My verse-nerd self was well sated, my Eliabethan-geek left happily quibbling, but my Ensemble-headed self left the play happiest of all.

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