By Michel Marc Bouchard
Directed by Tosha Fowler
Produced by Cor Theatre
Playing at the Frontier Theatre, Chicago
A Legendary Queen on a Storefront Stage
The Swedish queen Christina is one of the most fascinating figures of the seventeenth century, and the ambiguities and uncertainties about her life make her a common subject of dramatic portrayals to this very day. Having come to the throne as a child at the time when Sweden was one of Europe’s great powers, Christina’s refusal to abide by gender, religious, and political norms caused a great deal of controversy, as did her massive spending on intellectual and artistic pursuits. Now, at the Frontier Theatre as part of Jackalope’s initiative to assist itinerant companies producing Chicago premieres, Cor Theatre is presenting an English-language translation of French Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s drama about the queen, which focuses on the ideological conflicts during her reign. Questions of determinism, personal fulfillment vs. public responsibility, and the ethics of love are a lot to cram into a play which is also heavy on action and veers wildly between pathos and comedy, and Cor’s production, like everything at the Frontier, is barebones. But it is also highly stimulating.
The play begins with Christina (Toya Turner) already an adult and well into her reign. She has just been sexually assaulted by her cousin, Karl Gustav (Adam Benjamin), and is in the process of contemptuously rejecting his claims to love her when we first see her slouching on her silver throne. This, she says, is an example of the backwardness that grips Sweden, but, to alleviate their Viking-like ways, she has brought in the famous French philosopher René Descartes (Danny Taylor). Descartes teaches Christina that free will exists, but that emotions are controlled by physical structures in the brain. Christina is fascinated, and hopes to use Descartes’s teachings to gain some self-control. Passion has always been her downfall, and now, she has fallen madly in love with another woman, the noble Ebba Sparre (Laura Resinger).
Christina’s refusal to take a husband and produce an heir is creating an unstable political situation. Her chief advisor, Axel Oxenstierna (Tony Bozzuto) wants her to marry his son, Johan (Will Von Vogt), and Johan is even more jealously possessive of her than Karl Gustav. The young man is also deeply resentful of Christina’s attempt to rule in a more humane manner, declaring that it is civilized for countries to torture people. The greatest threat to Christina’s reign is personified by her mother, Maria Eleanora of Brandenburg (Meg Elliott). Why, the former queen demands to know, with Sweden at the peak of its strength, is Christina not committed to waging more wars? It’s not like Christina lacks the temperament for it, or the fearsome visage. Her back and shoulders were permanently damaged when her mother through her down the stairs as a child, and Maria Eleanora makes clear she’d do it again.
It could be an issue with Linda Gaboriau’s translation, or cultural differences between the English-speaking world and Quebec, but Bouchard does not display the finesse to handle Tom Stoppard-like tapestries of history, art, philosophy, and drama. Johan is a caricature of a misogynist, declaring explicitly at one point that lesbianism has no justification for existing except to entertain men. And yet, Maria Eleanora is presented as the most monstrous of ogres, and sound designer Jeffrey Levin supplies a thunderclap during her entrances. I also question whether free will would be regarded in Lutheran Sweden as a Catholic heresy, as characters in the play assert, or whether they would really treat Martin Luther as a prophet like Muslim radicals treat Muhammad.
For all the play’s questionable framing of philosophic issues, it is a potent character drama. The real Queen Christina made a number of tyrannical decisions not emphasized by the play, but we do see her as a proud, aggressive, and deeply insecure yet entitled young woman. Turner deserves a great deal of credit for how far into Christina’s psyche and physicality she is willing to go. The character is truly tragic, in that her downfall evokes pity and fear despite being due as much to her flaws as her difficult circumstances. (It’s not explicitly stated like in August Strindberg’s Kristina, but Charles I of England’s execution hung heavily over the Swedish court at this time.) And though I found the play’s themes somewhat confusing and extraneous, I did enjoy the ways director Tosha Fowler found of telling this story with such limited resources. The personal interactions are exciting, the design is evocative, and I found the conclusion, in which Christina learns the true price and meaning of freedom, moving. Cor’s production of Christina the Girl King is not perfect, nor is the script, but they are respectable, and if the story of this most remarkable ruler is new to you, you will especially enjoy it.
Reviewed March 20, 2016
For more information, see Christina, the Girl King’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Frontier, 1106 W Thorndale, Chicago. Tickets are $25, with discounts for students and industry; to order, call 866-811-4111. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 3:00 pm through April 9. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. For adult audiences only; contains sex, nudity, violence, and blood.