‘Mary, Sweet Mary…’ brings modern queer themes to the Elizabethan era

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Sasha Zirin

The set of “Mary, Sweet Mary”

By Sasha Zirin

“Mary, Sweet Mary, or The Final Tragedy of Christopher Marlowe” entered the hearts and minds of the public last weekend, lighting up the stage with an enchanting storyline ignited by ferocious acting.

Written by senior theater design/technology major Munroe Shearer, and produced by EmStage, the play won the 2022-23 NewFest Rod Parker Playwriting Fellowship. It ran from March 2 to March 5 in Tufte’s Greene Theater.

The show takes place in the Elizabethan era, and elements from the time period are illustrated through the plot and dialogue. The team incorporated Shakespearean English and various historical figures—among them, the playwright Christopher Marlowe and Mary, Queen of Scots. Nevertheless, the play centers important themes that transcend its setting: queer struggle and class divisions.

The play follows Queen Elizabeth I, played by senior acting major Christine Strong, as she navigates treacherous relationship dynamics. For one, her dangerous spymaster, who insists on marrying her; her cousin Mary, sentenced to death for acting against her rule yet whose ghost haunts Elizabeth day and night; her servant, Agnes, whom she’s falling deeply in love with; Agnes’s brother, the playwright Thomas Kyd; and Thomas’s boyfriend, the reimagined Marlowe.

Over the course of the play, the queen begins to understand just how distant she truly is from the people she rules, and how alienating that is for her.

There is a strong aura of emotional intensity surrounding all the characters in the play, and, mixed with the raw dialogue and phenomenal acting, it can leave audiences on the edge of their seats.

“I really respect the playwright,” said first-year musical theater major Elijah Groves, who was on the run crew for the production. “This is a well written show. It’s really inspiring as a performer myself to see.”

The acting was enthralling—Strong, Queen Elizabeth’s actor, sobbed in a way that was captivating and transporting. Amidst the wailing as she frantically yearned for Agnes, it felt like the whole world was watching, transfixed. The queen, like every other character, spit lyrical prose with content so utterly human and personal.

Her harrowing emotions were counteracted flawlessly by junior theater and performance major Beyoncé Martinez—who played Mary, Queen of Scots—providing a perfectly crafted demeanor as well as comedic and critical timing.

Another example would be when Marlowe—brought back to life by sophomore theater and performance major David Staats—has a falling out with his boyfriend Thomas after Kyd blames him for calling for the death of the queen through a pamphlet. Staats departs from Marlowe’s typical, gentle demeanor, and brings out a furious demand for Thomas to never speak to him again. The sharp right turn had a heart-stopping effect.

“The actors are top-notch,” crew member for the show and first-year theater and performance major Virgil Durkin said. “They’re all very believable as their characters, and I can’t imagine anyone else being in their roles.”

Beyond the acting, Durkin also mentioned the success of the storyline’s suspenseful nature.

“I like the plot twists, [the show] keeps you engaged,” he said. “Even from backstage you can hear the audience’s reaction and it’s always like *gasp.*”

The two relationships—between Christopher and Thomas, and between the queen and the fictional Agnes—were brought together with the shared themes of secrecy and despairing compromise. Queerness was addressed in a way relevant to the time period, while also being reflective of today’s society.

Nevertheless, the two relationships are clearly distinguishable from each other. Christopher and Thomas are used to being together and feeling comfortable with each other, while the relationship between Agnes and Elizabeth experiences more buildup than actual dating throughout the play.

The class divisions are also a huge part of the play that holds up today. Towards the end, Christopher tells Elizabeth directly: “They bow to you, they sit with me.”

At first, the queen doesn’t understand what that means, but the line is perfectly representative of what the play makes readily apparent: Elizabeth was born with an inherent distance from the people she rules. The unfulfillment and loneliness that comes with it torments her, but it’s truly Christopher, Thomas, and Agnes who ultimately get the blunt end of her societal role and the actions that come with it. The play offers a curious look at the corruption of the ultra-wealthy and ultra-powerful.

“Mary, Sweet Mary…” is an astounding show and truly reflective of the talent that exists at Emerson. It offered a profound and poetic perspective to both the historical era and the themes addressed. Not only the writing and the acting, but also the set and costume design was beautifully done. The production emblematized the immense passion that exists for theater at Emerson.