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.
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.