Life with the royals

Don Carlos

By Friedrich Schiller
Adapted by John Rafter Lee
Directed by David Kennedy
Prospect Theater Company
West End Theatre
263 West 86th St. (212/352-3101)
Equity showcase (closes Oct. 3)
Review by Jenny Sandman

"Better a rotting corpse than free minds."

-- Grand Inquisitor, Don Carlos

"There's not a sliver of hope...and still, I cannot stop," says Carlos, prince of Spain, in love with his own stepmother. Schiller's 1787 masterpiece of German Romanticism, Don Carlos, explores one of history's great mysteries. In 1568, Philip II of Spain arrested and effectively disinherited his only son. In Don Carlos, it's because of both Carlos's passion and Philip's lack of it.

Carlos was once betrothed to Elizabeth, but his father stepped in and claimed his son's bride for himself. Carlos is desperately in love with her, but he despairs of ever realizing it -- Elizabeth seems happy in her marriage and her new motherhood. Philip is also in love with his young wife -- "You are my kingdom," he tells her -- but knows nothing of his son's illicit passion.

Philip's love for his wife is the only emotion he will show. He's a cold, hard, zealously devout ruler, who keeps close counsel with the Grand Inquisitor and routinely burns Protestant heretics. Carlos desperately wants to win his love and respect, but he cannot. Philip despises any show of emotion as weakness, and Carlos, as the grand Romantic hero, is subject to fits of public emotion. Carlos, naturally, is jealous of his father, and he's drawn into a plot against the crown, with Philip's favorites vying for position and Carlos's friend seemingly involved in both sides.

Don Carlos is a swirl of plots and schemes, but it's mostly about freedom -- physical, political, spiritual, romantic and otherwise. The brash impetuosity of youth is contrasted against the cold manipulations of court politics, and in Prospect Theater Company's production, both were highlighted to excellent effect.

John Rafter Lee's new adaptation clarifies the script in almost-modern language, and the setting (designed by Tobin Ost) fit the comparatively stark dialog. The only scenery was a series of backlit panels from a Hieronymos Bosch painting. As the plot thickened, each panel was turned to reveal a bare black side, with a single peephole. The peepholes brought a chilling reminder that neither Carlos nor Elizabeth (nor anyone in the court, for that matter) is ever really alone. There are always spies and eavesdroppers.

Michael Stewart Allen as Carlos and Craig Wroe as Philip were pitted against each other. Both were excellent, Wroe a study in concentrated mercilessness and Allen as the rash, lovelorn prince. Maclain Looper was Posa, Carlos's best friend and seeming betrayer; he and Darren Mathias as Alba made up the court's two chief schemers. Kelly Mares as Elizabeth was a nice intermediary. She yearns for Carlos but can't bring herself to betray her husband and new daughter. In Mares's hands, she was young without being flighty and queenly without being condescending or cruel. It was a well-matched cast, as befit Prospect's high standards.

Don Carlos was another success for Prospect Theater Company. They have shown an adept hand with the classics; Schiller can be difficult, but this production was exciting and enjoyable, despite its length (two hours and 45 minutes). Under David Kennedy's careful direction, the cast showed a warm ensemble spirit and a healthy appreciation for both their situation and their language. It hardly felt dated at all; Carlos's quest for freedom, and his struggle against an overbearing father, resonate with modern audiences.

Also with V. Damien Carter, Mark Farr, Jolie Garrett, Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum, Suzanne Houston, Heather Kelley, and Roya Shanks.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 Jenny Sandman