Only Connect: Z Space’s “The Companion Piece”

Jake Rodriguez headlines the festivities in Z Space's "The Companion Piece." Photo: Pak Han.

Mark Jackson’s staging of Mary Stuart was one of the highlights of Bay Area theater last year, and he and his Mary Stuart star Beth Wilmurt have teamed up again to provide what will surely be one of the most intriguing productions of 2011.  Joining forces with the amazing Christopher Kuckenbaker, a performer I’ve delighted in watching over the years, and the brilliant sound designer Jake Rodriguez, who also happens to be a very fine actor, they’ve collaborated on a new absurdist vaudeville for Z Space, entitled The Companion Piece.  It doesn’t quite match up to that other classic of absurdism with vaudeville roots, Waiting for Godot, but in its quirky rhythms, audacious inventiveness, and masterful stagecraft, there are flashes of true brilliance.

A meditation on companionship and solitude, The Companion Piece also explores the motivations of the artistic impulse.  Theater is of course a form of communication:  It begins in solitude, the playwright creating the script, and ends in cooperation as the director, actors, designers, and myriad others come together to fully present the piece, including even more people as an audience shares each performance. The Companion Piece too was conceived in solitude.  After reading the 2000 book A General Theory of Love, Drs. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannan’s beautifully literate examination of the neurological and chemical origins of love, Wilmurt was struck with the idea of presenting the book’s ideas theatrically in a vaudeville, and she, Jackson, Kuckenbaker, and Rodriguez began devising the show.  (Designer Gabe Maxson’s sure-handed use of light, especially his employment of the stark and isolating spotlight, is also an important facet.)  The work thus grew out of improvisation and group effort, but the final product is fixed, presented consistently at each performance.

It’s Rodriguez who opens the evening, standing in front of a painted drop with a caricature of himself and the words “The Sensation of the Stage” emblazoned underneath.  He sports a seedy tuxedo and greased-back hair, his face powdered and rouged, a pencil mustache adorning his upper lip.  In a voice that’s part borscht-belt comedian, part carnival sideshow barker, he delivers an astonishing monologue in a rapid-fire delivery.  Rodriguez has a manic gleam in his eye as he spouts his bad jokes, performs a few magic tricks, mangles a few lines from Shakespeare and other sources, and introduces in myriad oblique ways the show’s themes, relentlessly promoting himself along the way.  He sings a few songs, which I believe are originals: “I’ve Never Needed Anyone Less Than I’ve Never Needed You” and one that’s probably called “With You/Without You.”  (“With you, would my life stop before I reach the top?”) The audience laughs at the wrong times: never in response to his actual jokes, which are more desperate than funny.  “Say ‘knock, knock’!” he hectors the audience, which obliges him.  “Who’s there?” he asks, and silence reigns. “They don’t get it,” he mutters. And he does the routine again, with the same results.

The monologue is finely honed, down to the number of chomps he takes on a piece of gum, but behind it all is a despairing futility.  Rodriguez the character knows that the audience doesn’t comprehend what he’s doing, but he gives it all he’s got, and Rodriguez the actor conveys the irony and the pathos in the character’s actions.  The communication is all one way, except for brief glimpses of comprehension by the audience.  We get it, and we don’t get it.  He raises the drop behind him, picks up his props, wheels a giant metal staircase to a ridiculous door, 20 feet off the ground and adorned with a gold star.  He ascends the staircase and disappears behind the door.

Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker enter, conversing in a modern, naturalistic style, wearing plaid slacks and colored t-shirts.  They’re actors who have just completed their own show, and they grab a microphone and begin conducting a talkback with some unseen audience.  Kuckenbaker speechifies about how “comedy is really a science,” and then with an instant, invisible shift, we’re in a pre-show talk.  They ask for single words from the same unseen audience, presumably to be used in some improv routine that will come up.  “Door,” “synchronicity,” and “brilliant” are the apparent results.  (“Brilliant?  When’s that gonna happen?” grouses Wilmurt.)  Wilmurt starts musing about how they need a structure: “Improvisation is great, but…,” and a funny bit ensues about her hair improvising until she “choreographed” it. While she’s talking, Kuckenbaker begins running around, playing with props, searching for some funny piece of business, until Wilmurt too begins brainstorming about what they could do together.  But Kuckenbaker tends towards physical clowning while Wilmurt wants to incorporate musical numbers.  A tug of war ensues, with Kuckenbaker trying to set up a Cyrano de Bergerac skit with a puffy tunic and fake nose, singing The Police’s “Roxanne,” while Wilmurt wheels out a tinny upright piano and tries to change into a red tango dress, playing snippets of songs on the keyboard and on a ukelele.  The two run all over the cavernous Z Space stage (the former Theatre Artaud venue), flinging their bodies around with seeming abandon as they try to have their vision be the dominant one, without seeming as if they’re taking over.  (They constantly apologize for quashing the other’s ideas.)

At another point Kukenbaker is caught by the spotlight, clad in nothing but his comically striped briefs.  He immediately adopts a humorously presentational pose, but then he’s stuck, frozen.  He desperately grimaces towards Wilmurt, and she darts about the dusky, dusty theater, rummaging through costume racks and properties collections searching for something, anything for him to do.  It’s the old actor’s nightmare, caught on stage in your underwear with no idea of what’s required of you.  But Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker the artists also realize that’s what an actor has to do to be successful, to expose one’s self to the audience, no matter how terrifying.  And by extension, that’s also what has to happen in a relationship.

When the two do a simple dance together to “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” in ridiculous yellow pinafores and black bowler hats, it’s joyous—two bodies in unison, but when Wilmurt breaks off because she has a “better” idea and Kuckenbaker doggedly continues on, sadness pervades the stage.

Christopher Kuckenbaker and Beth Wilmurt. Photo: Pak Han

The sound and lighting cues interrupt and change the routines as well, forcing the performers to adapt when a snatch of music or a shift in the lights threatens to throw them off-course.

There’s an offstage argument between Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker, about the way the production is shaping up, and a lyrical waltz with two large rolling metal staircases, guided by the two actors.  You fear they’ll crash, but they never do.  You hope they’ll meet up, so that the performers can climb up and reach each other that way, but that doesn’t happen either.  The staircases end up side by side, striving towards the audience, not each other.

Wilmurt has a wonderful singing voice—an actress’s voice.  There’s no showiness, just a clarity that gets at the heart of a lyric, no matter how silly.  She and Kuckenbaker are about the same height, but her long legs give the illusion that she towers over him, while his protruding ears and receding hairline somehow make him seem shorter.  Kuckenbaker is a physical marvel, with clowning skills and postures reminiscent of Harry Langdon, and he’s fearless as a performer.  The two work together beautifully, and their energy is completely present, completely alive.  The two performers aren’t waiting for Godot, they’re waiting for each other– not to arrive, but to make each other better, and it’s just as vain a wait.

It’s difficult to convey the amount of beauty, humor, and skill in these routines, with their misleading sense of haphazardness.  It’s clear how much care has been lavished on what we’re seeing.  While on one level the narrative seems disjointed and scattered, as mercurial as a person’s moods, on another we see how finely wrought it is, how much work and intelligence went into making it that way. Even in moments of stillness, there’s no awkwardness in the staging, no wavering of the audience’s focus.

The problem lies in the last two speeches by Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker.  They take turns expressing their hopes for audience reaction, that we’ll understand their special brilliance, that they’ll connect with us in a new and dazzling way.  But in the naïve language used, the text doesn’t match the eloquence of their movement and their stagecraft.  When Wilmurt talks of being recognized as the “idea girl” and hopes that someone in the audience will communicate that to her fifth grade teacher who never believed in her, it’s too blatant, too clumsy.  Of course the desire for some kind of validation and retribution, even revenge, is a part of the artistic drive, as is the desire for appreciation and, yes, fame. An artist wants people to see her work, after all.  And it’s clear that Wilmurt the writer/creator ironically undercuts the speech: It’s Kuckenbaker who is carefully guiding a giant iron cross beam from which Wilmurt is suspended on a trapeze as she speaks: He slowly swings her out in front of the audience: No matter how talented you are, you can’t go it alone.  She even begins by proclaiming “When you see my act—our act…,” acknowledging Kukenbaker in a way he didn’t for her, but this nod to partnership is dropped as Wilmurt continues describing her dreams of connection and recognition.

I realize I’m probably asking for the impossible here.  These speeches need to be breathtaking, more sublime than anything else we’ve seen or heard so far.  They need to incorporate the myriad tones that have preceded it, combining the roles of character, actor, writer, and creator and playing with the conflicts and, yes, synchronicities of all of them.  They also need the sense of mystery that pervades so much else in the play.  Despite being beautifully delivered, the words themselves fail. As words so often do.

The coda to these speeches catches some of what’s missing in the text.  A curtain is hung between the two staircases, and a magician’s disappearing closet is placed under the curtain.  Kuckenbaker and Wilmurt repeatedly try to make the other disappear but they won’t cooperate with each other, and the trick doesn’t happen.  Until it does.  Kuckenbaker vanishes and Rodriguez steps out of the box.  As he repeats his opening monologue, Wilmurt again lowers the scenic drop seen at the opening, and The Companion Piece ends as it began: a lone performer trying to connect, but aware he’s failing.

What Jackson and his colleagues accomplish with The Companion Piece, is so rich, so daring, that I wish I could say its failure is small by comparison. Ironically, that failure is the failure of many human interactions.  A connection can feel so deep, so true, that when it breaks in some vital moment, when one person can’t see something important in exactly the way the other person does, it’s often devastating.  The Companion Piece breaks your heart, but in the wrong way.  That you dare to hope it might do so truly, artistically, is a major, major achievement.

"What about this?" Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker cook up a show. Photo: Pak Han

The Companion Piece plays from now until February 13 at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA  94110.  For more information, call 415-626-0453 or visit http://www.zspace.org.

Shotgun’s “Mary Stuart”: Armed and Dangerous

"I want to have peace." Elizabeth I (Beth Wilmurt) agonizes over the fate of Mary Stuart (Stephanie Gularte). (Photo: Jessica Palopoli)

Director, playwright, and actor Mark Jackson is a legend of the Bay Area theater scene, and I remember several of the productions of his Art Street Theatre company with both fondness and amazement. When he joined forces with Berkeley’s Shotgun Players several years ago, it seemed a perfect match. Yet the two previous Shotgun productions of his that I saw left me rather cold. The Death of Meyerhold had a great beginning but degenerated into boring biography, while The Forest War seemed mostly artifice with little art. Thus it was with trepidation that I read he would be undertaking Friedrich Schiller’s 200-year-old chestnut, Mary Stuart.

The production I saw at ACT many years ago was mind-numbingly dull, and when I read the script recently, I wasn’t all that impressed. Mary herself seemed insufferably noble (despite her sordid past), while her antagonist, Elizabeth I, appeared to be the most wishy-washy monarch ever. Shotgun’s publicity didn’t ease my fears. “Four hundred years ago in England, or yesterday in America?” is the kind of tag line that usually makes me keep at least 500 yards away from a playhouse. It’s not that I expected Jackson to dress Mary up like Sarah Palin and Elizabeth like Hilary Rodham Clinton…  wait, actually, that’s exactly what I expected.

I was wrong. In adapting Schiller’s verse play, Jackson hacks it to under two hours, reduces the cast to eight actors, puts them all in modern dress, and unbelievably, creates a tense, taut, engaging, and yes, modern political thriller. Most importantly, despite the play’s title, Jackson realizes that this isn’t Mary’s story. It’s Elizabeth’s. His Elizabeth isn’t indecisive at all. In a court filled with intriguers and plotters, Elizabeth is the master manipulator, the subtlest actor, the finest plotter. It’s a revelation that changes everything.

When we first see Elizabeth and her court, we know exactly who these people are. (Christine Crook’s costuming aids in this immeasurably:  simple and understated, it yet displays real intelligence.) We recognize them from the Sunday morning talk shows and the cable news networks, from the press conferences and photo ops.  Though there are some additions to Schiller’s dialog, Jackson is working with the play he’s got. He’s not embellishing and he’s not shoehorning it into some modern parallel: he does nothing obvious or contrived. He allows the show to resonate naturally with contemporary audiences, and surprisingly, it does.

The story is well-known: The Catholic Mary Stuart (Stephanie Gularte) has been arrested and tried for participating in an assassination plot against the protestant queen Elizabeth I (Beth Wilmurt). Mary’s jailor, Sir Amias Paulet (Jesse Caldwell) brings her the news that she’s been convicted in what was largely a show trial and sentenced to death mainly on testimony that was most likely coerced. (“We do not torture!” one of Elizabeth’s courtiers proclaims.)  Paulet’s nephew, Edward Mortimer (Ryan Tasker, in a role invented by Schiller), pledges his support to Mary and reveals that plans are underway to rescue her and provide safe passage to France. Mary tells Mortimer that his plans are most likely doomed unless he can get Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Scott Coopwood) to help him. Leicester is the current favorite of Elizabeth, but he was once betrothed to Mary, and as we discover, still loves her. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is trying to shore up her own relationship with Catholic France by making coy promises of marriage to the Duke of Anjou via the French ambassador Aubespine (Dara Yazdani). Counseling restraint and mercy for Mary is the Earl of Shrewsbury (John Mercer), while Lord Burleigh (Peter Ruocco) urges that justice be done and Mary’s sentence carried out. The ever-present but never-seen People cry out for blood and are just as likely to cry out against anyone who actually gives it to them. In this fraught background, intrigues are hatched, evidence is manufactured, promises are broken, and lives are ruined.

The no-frills set (designed by Nina Ball) is a cross between a sterile police interrogation cell and the meeting room of some banal bureaucracy: the DMV, say. Dull gray linoleum lines the floor, pale green and grey walls feature a white board, a mirror and a one-way observation window, while the furniture is cheap plastic, Formica, and aluminum. Two upstage doors lead to cramped, narrow corridors. It’s a place bereft of beauty, where ugly backroom deals and grudges both petty and significant decide someone’s fate. Three projection screens show footage of Mary in captivity or of the comings and goings of Elizabeth’s court, heightening the feeling of suspicion and surveillance.  Stage right is Elizabeth’s office space, a large white desk and a mirror, while stage left is a meeting room: cheap, aging chairs, a table, and a white board.

Mary, once the Queen of Scots, now a prisoner, sits in a center stage chair for almost the entire show, as Elizabeth and her lords decide what to do with her, arguing, discussing, and planning on either side.  As Mary, Gularte speaks with a formality that sets her apart from the others, her foreignness in evidence.  Jackson keeps her confined to her chair (with actual restraints in the second act) except for her one scene of freedom, where she meets Elizabeth in person in the garden outside her cell. This is Gularte’s (and Mary’s) best scene, as she strives to be humble towards Elizabeth, but loses her temper to the point of calling Elizabeth a bastard. (Elizabeth, of course, is the daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, and has succeeded her Catholic half-sister Mary I, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, to the throne. The last thing Elizabeth needs is another Catholic Mary disputing her already precarious reign.) Mary’s outburst is shocking after we’ve seen so much self-control from her.

Gularte is also excellent in her final scene. In the original, Mary is denied a Catholic priest to confess to before her execution.  Her steward agrees to stand in for one, and he hears her confession and pardons her as best he can.  Jackson has cut the role in this version, so Gularte speaks both parts as Mary tries to grant herself absolution.  The (now) monologue could probably still be stand to be cut down even further, as her confession doesn’t tell us anything new: Mary did commit adultery and was culpable in her husband’s murder, but she was not involved in the plot to overthrow Elizabeth. Because there is no arc to Mary’s character, we don’t need this extended confession, even though Gularte enacts it with real skill.

As mentioned, in Jackson’s adaptation, the play is Elizabeth’s, and the part has a doozy of an actress in Beth Wilmurt. Wilmurt has worked with Jackson for years now, and I’ve never seen her less than wonderful. Here, got up in riding pants and knee-high boots, with a blue blazer and red blouse, she’s royal to the core. Tall and regal, Wilmurt’s Elizabeth knows she hasn’t been fashioned to be a wife and realizes she’s alone in a man’s world. She has to bargain with her love, and is thus careful where she bestows it. After Mary has insulted her, Elizabeth soliloquizes, “I want to have peace.  You must go, go, go, go, GO!”  Wilmurt builds this to crescendo, and it becomes a howl of desperation and frustration.

Wilmurt injects humor into the performance as well. In the famous scene with her young assistant Davison (wonderfully played by Yadzani, who offers plenty of humor himself), Elizabeth has signed Mary’s death warrant but refuses to give her underling clear instructions on what to do with it. She knows she’s setting him up, and he does too. We’re watching the invention of plausible deniability. Elizabeth emphatically wants Mary dead and even more emphatically wants her own hands clean of the deed. She’s consigning Davison to perdition, and beneath the humor, it’s bone-chilling. At play’s end, Elizabeth is completely in charge, and Wilmurt embodies her steadfastness and her triumph.

As I’ve started writing on Bay Area theater again, I’ve fallen in love all over with the quality of the acting in this town. With each show I’ve covered, I keep discovering some brilliant actor I was previously unaware of. As good as Wilmurt is in this, she’s outdone by Peter Ruocco. His Burleigh is a cross between Karl Rove and Rahm Emanuel, instantly familiar yet endlessly fascinating. Ruocco uses every tool at hand to portray Elizabeth’s hatchet man, her only advisor who counsels bold action. His light brown hair is immaculately styled, and he wears gold-rimmed glasses, a pinstriped suit, and a red power tie, with a Union Jack flag pin proudly displayed on his lapel. Ruocco is the shortest member of the cast, yet he carries himself straighter and more rigidly than any one else, compensating perfectly for his underwhelming height. He makes no movement without purpose: There are no wasted or meaningless gestures. His objective is clear, but he’s endlessly inventive in how he persuades and bullies others to his point of view. His voice effortlessly projects both power and clarity, and he seems so inherently reasonable, he argues so persuasively, that all the other lords are understandably wary of him. The iambic pentameter (Jackson keeps the meter of the verse mostly intact) might just as well be prose for Ruocco, he handles it so naturally. When Burleigh finally oversteps and incurs Elizabeth’s wrath (even though he’s done exactly what she expected him to do), Ruocco exits with no loss of dignity, with a manly acceptance of his fate that’s somehow incredibly affecting.  Ruocco manages to be the center of action whenever he’s on stage without pulling focus from his fellow actors.  He’s miraculous.

The rest of the cast does excellent work. Caldwell’s Paulet emanates a fundamental decency, while Mercer’s Shrewsbury is the voice of moderation, counseling Elizabeth at play’s end not to condemn Burleigh, “the truest of your friends.” And you know that in time, Elizabeth will follow his advice.  (Mercer’s natural British accent is somewhat disconcerting at first, since the rest of the cast speaks in their normal American voices, but you soon grow comfortable with it.)  Coopwood’s Leicester is an alpha male who isn’t quite alpha enough.  With his shaved head, goatee, and athletic build, he seems unflappably masculine, until others ensnare him in dangerous schemes, and the anxiety visibly deflates him.  And as Mortimer, Tasker is callow, earnest and dangerous. When his rescue plan becomes more grandiose and his vision of himself as savior overtakes all practicality, Mary exclaims, “You’re mad!” and the audience believes it.

Against all odds, Jackson has created a smart and enthralling version of Schiller’s lumbering “classic.”  His ruthless editing and intelligent conception earns the PR department’s odious tag line: It’s actually difficult to tell whether it’s 400 years ago in England or yesterday in America, and that’s a major accomplishment.  Mark Jackson and the Shotgun Player’s Mary Stuart is great theater.

Burleigh (Peter Ruocco) dares to lay a hand on the captured queen (Stephanie Gularte) as Paulet (Jesse Caldwell) reacts. (Photo: Jessica Palopoli)

Mary Stuart plays from now until November 7 at the Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA, 941703.  For more information, call 510-841-6500 or visit http://www.shotgunplayers.org.