Chris Bennion

Much to my chagrin, I missed the opening minutes of director Victor Pappas's Mary Stuart in the traffic snarl surrounding President Obama's visit. No matter—I'm happy to report that should such a fate befall you, you'll find plenty to love even without the opening lines.

Sit as close as possible; performed in the round on the sparest of sets, Mary Stuart's magic lies almost entirely in the energy between each of the two leads and everyone else in their path. Their blistering stares—from hypnotic to lustful to raging—are ones you'll want to feel.

The story is more than 400 years old, and the play half that. England's Queen Elizabeth I (Suzanne Bouchard) must choose whether or not to execute her cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Anne Allgood), over treasonous rumblings that could cost Elizabeth her crown—or her head.

It's plain to see why Allgood and Bouchard, who've been local theater powerhouses for years, were the ones to set the project in motion. Allgood saw Mary Stuart in New York, loved it, got the script, ran up to Bouchard in the lobby at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and begged her to read it. The two approached Pappas and asked him to pitch the project to ACT. The new translation feels both centuries old and eminently understandable. It has fabulous, shouted curses about "pissing on England" and how the throne has been "desecrated by a bastard," but its simpler language is even more cutting. As Elizabeth commands with utmost venom: "She dies. He sees her die. Then he dies."

Such central and power-wielding female characters are exceedingly rare, and the actors do these fierce women justice. Both queens execute tight emotional pirouettes: Elizabeth from seduction to condemnation, Mary from pleading to cursing. Like any good story of Tudor England, it is impossible to read anyone's true motivations at any point. The double-, triple-, and quadruple-crossing by the queens and their underlings elicited one gasp after another from the audience.

The costume design by Frances Kenny also puts the women front and center—the queens wear ornate period costumes while their scurrying, fiendish male underlings wear understated, contemporary gray suits. Female-centered action shouldn't be so rare and refreshing (it should be commonplace!), but it is—and it's worth supporting when it comes around. However, you need not attend Mary Stuart solely as a political act. This epic clash of wills can be enjoyed for its artistry as well as its feminism. recommended