Political intrigue and peril, romance and swordplay, parallels to today’s electoral brouhaha, and reminders of historical warnings, all presented in dignified but unpretentious blank verse cadences. Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos has it all, at least in the adaptation written and directed by Tony Estrella, which is premiering at the Gamm (through October 5).
WEAKNESS AND STRENGH: Kidd and Donelly.
When people speak of a production of Don Carlos, they’re usually referring to the opera by Verdi. There was a London adaptation of the play in 2005, but the late 18th-century work by Schiller, staged two decades before the opera, is known mainly to comparative literature students. Written to run six hours, full of lengthy disquisitions on politics and power and religion, even in its own time it was ruthlessly chopped down by directors for actual performances.
Don’t check your history book if you want the end to be a surprise, but you might check the original Schiller version if you want to put in perspective its length at Gamm (less than three hours, including intermission; see sidebar) and complicated plot (a flowchart would be helpful, to follow who is deceiving whom; see below).
Don Carlos (Steve Kidd) is the heir apparent to the throne of the Spanish Empire in the late 16th century. At the opening, he hardly appears to be a prince of kingly bearing, weeping as he is over a handful of old love letters. The current queen, Elizabeth (Georgia Cohen), his stepmother, used to be his fiancée. His father, King Philip II (Richard Donelly), stole her as much out of lust as from political convenience, allying with her native France. Elizabeth doesn’t want anything to do with Don Carlos, being the kind of girl who keeps her head.
The lust noted above courses through this play like a river with numberless tributaries. Philip also has flaring nostrils for Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Eboli (Amanda Ruggiero), who in turn schemes to meet secretly with Don Carlos, who arrives only because he thought Elizabeth had relented. Poor Eboli, whose only claim to dignity is a tearful speech lamenting the plight of young princesses usually forced to marry graybeards twice their age.
Kidd presents Don Carlos effectively, though our empathy is reduced by the character being so weak and vacillating at times — especially in contrast with Donelly’s powerful Philip, whose stern glance is more unsettling than the prince’s anger.
Despite being a supporting character, Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa (Alexander Platt), is the strongest presence in this play, both from his crucial role in the story and through Platt’s stern but restrained acting. Rodrigo is a soldier who has recently proved himself valorous in Flanders, and he is also an old friend of Don Carlos, loved and trusted. Not to give away too much of the story, let’s just say that his attempt at fortifying the prince against the injustices of the Inquisition and promoting rebellion against Philip’s iron-fisted rule takes twists and turns.