Empire strikes back

arts@sfbg.com

STAGE Speaking to more immediate concerns, Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart turned England’s 17th-century battle royal between rising Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and imprisoned Catholic challenger Mary Queen of Scots into a fleet drama of intimate conflicts internal and external. In Shotgun Players’ current production, director-adapter Mark Jackson recasts Schiller’s 1800 play to his own purposes, slimming its five acts down to a fairly taut two and setting it in a vividly contemporary, American-looking world of power politics, religious fanaticism, and imperial hubris. Jackson’s Mary Stuart retains the emphasis on the personal drama, but it may hold less interest in the end than the political world containing it.

As the play opens, the Scottish queen (Stephanie Gularte) languishes in an English prison (a private castle, actually), her face projected onto three video screens above the stage, as her cousin on the throne, Elizabeth (Beth Wilmurt), weighs what to do with her. The execution order will come sooner or later, history tells us, but meanwhile we get a paralleling of two very different yet intimately linked personalities and the machinations they and others put into play around them, culminating in an unhistorical but highly dramatic meeting between the two women. In the end, both appear prisoners of the power structure that they battle each other, and those around them, to dominate.

As Elizabeth, Wilmurt is a nicely arranged set of contradictions. Projecting an array of subtle gestures and meaningful silences, her Elizabeth works to maintain a carapace of authority and willpower over a youthful and vulnerable heart. Wilmurt instinctively humanizes the character with delicate humor and a barely cloaked shyness. But her Elizabeth is also, and ultimately, a ruthlessly cunning power player. If there is a soul, Elizabeth loses hers long before she’s lost her ballyhooed virginity.

As Elizabeth’s cousin and nemesis, Gularte’s Mary is an overt storm of emotion and feminine potency. Jackson keeps her onstage for the entire play, in a section of Nina Ball’s excellent set that recedes at one point to disturbingly suggest a stark execution chamber, while also revealing a small patch of grass in a sunken prison yard, the site of Mary’s one brief visit with a regained sense of freedom. Gularte’s performance suffers from too self-conscious a take on her character’s understandable anguish, but she conveys some of the terrible contradictions that haunt a young woman facing imminent death.

Around the “female kings” swarm an assortment of men, some who still seem to be wrestling with the gender upset at the top of the power hierarchy. But the real divisions among them are over ideology, strategy, self-interest — and all hitch their concerns to one or the other of these two women. Mortimer (Ryan Tasker), for instance, is the cool-eyed fanatic, a secret convert to Catholicism who devotes himself to saving the imprisoned Mary at the cost of his own life. His counterpart is Burleigh (Peter Ruocco), equally committed and sure on behalf of the Protestant state, and determined to see Mary executed.

This is a time of deep civil strife, when “national security” seems paramount, as well as a convenient excuse for advancing momentary interests against the usual restraints of law and custom. At the same time, the actions of rulers are self-consciously squared against public appearances and the fickle, manipulated prejudices and opinions of Elizabeth’s subjects, the people at large.

It all should sound familiar. The present is present everywhere in this production. The sleek minimalist set shrewdly blends bland corporate meeting rooms with the two-way mirrors and closed-circuit cameras of a modern, bureaucratic Panopticon. The contemporary costumes include de rigueur flag pins in the men’s lapels and the cast speaks unreservedly in American accents. Moreover, against the stark gravity of the scenic design and Schiller’s lively but heightened language, Jackson’s actors indulge in a fair amount of vernacular humor.

Still, there’s fidelity to the text and its dramatic core. Only once is there a very noticeable bit of updating — an irresistible one — when Burleigh responds to Mary’s accusation that the testimony gathered against her includes physically coerced slanders. “We do not torture,” corrects the spin-savvy Burleigh. “Nobody here was tortured.”

Elizabeth’s loyal minister Shrewsbury (a compellingly impassioned John Mercer) meanwhile argues restrain and the rule of law. “England is not the world,” he cautions his queen. But his eloquence falls on deaf ears. The tide of history moves inexorably in the other direction.

Other memorable performances here include the Scott Coopwood’s dexterous and patently charming take on the dashing but cowardly Leicester, who in getting up close and personal with each royal contender, plays a dangerous and amusingly macho game.

Jackson’s last effort with Shotgun Players, 2009’s Faust: Part 1, engaged another pillar of German Romanticism in a strikingly reimagined staging of Goethe’s masterwork. Both productions demonstrate a bold blending of voices and visions that, while sometimes discordant on the surface (and usually intentionally, productively so) are still in sync underneath. Jackson clearly shares Schiller’s enthusiasm for the opportunities afforded drama by history, an enthusiasm that forgoes strict fidelity to the factual record to offer deeper truths and more visceral connections.

But the political lesson, if there is one, is just this: rule is a matter of style. It’s always geared to the same ends. This is the import of the production’s own style, which at times feels like West Wing: The Obama Years. What we watch — on stage or in D.C. — is the revolving door of personalities bringing their own manner and virtues, such as they are, to the operation of the imperial machine. To offer the insight that the machine has each one of them in its grasp as much as anyone else obfuscates the point that it’s a machine designed to benefit a few at the expense of everyone and everything else making up life on the planet. That’s why it’s hard not to agree with the Sex Pistols when they doubt the very species similarity between the Queen and the rest of us. God save the Queen? “She ain’t no human being.” 

MARY STUART

Through Nov. 6, $17–$30 (and pay-what-you-can performances)

Ashby Stage

1901 Ashby, Berk.

(510) 841-6500

www.shotgunplayers.org