Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle:Mary Stuart,an Experiment Gone Awry

By John A. McMullen II
Monday October 18, 2010 - 09:56:00 AM
Featured (L to R): Jesse Caldwell, Stephanie Gularte, Peter Ruocco.
Jessica Palopoli
Featured (L to R): Jesse Caldwell, Stephanie Gularte, Peter Ruocco.

Mark Jackson is a proven theatrical talent. With Meyerhold, Faust, and others, he has wowed this reviewer repeatedly.

MARY STUART, now playing at Shotgun Players through November 7th is a stark and colorless version of Frederick Schiller’s blank verse play about Mary, Queen of Scots, and her interrogation and execution under Queen Elizabeth I. Jackson adapted and directed, and it is a hodge-podge of acting styles, hieratic posturing, served in a bleak room. The audience loved it, and two curtain calls were demanded. I found it hard to watch, and harder to listen to. 

All the history that is needed is that Mary is the niece of Henry the Eighth as his sister was her mother, and is thereby a contender for the throne (her son James does succeed Elizabeth). Elizabeth is thought to be a bastard by many since Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry was a little slippery with the divorce and all, so Mary is the only real rival she has. There is the religion thing, back when Catholics and Protestants were acting like Sunnis and Shiites, and Mary is a Papist. She has been run out of Scotland and seeks refuge with Elizabeth, but she seems to continue to plot against Elizabeth even while under her protection “in confinement.” Can the Virgin Queen really lop off her cousin’s head? 

Mary, played by Stephanie Gularte, speaks in strident tones with less than an octave range, is dressed in gray cotton prison garb, and gives us no reason to sympathize with her plight. It was hard to care what befell her. And caring about these two women in a man’s world is the key to the emotional message of the play. 

Elizabeth, played by Beth Wilmurt, speaks unemotionally in a young and flat voice more like a loan officer in Omaha than the regent who inspired “The Faerie Queen” and was surrounded by Shakespeare and Jonson’s wit and verse.  

The play begins with a modern scene from any FBI drama in a contemporary interrogation room. Federal agents in suits speak in those outdated Shakespearean intonations that were never very comprehensible. That histrionic style was barely tolerable when partnered with lavish costumes and sets; in this monochromatic Orwellian chamber, it was an eye-roller. At least they were spouting Shakespeare then, but Schiller ain’t Shakespeare.  

There is a lot of hollering. Any TV cop show aficionado knows that method seldom works in interrogation. Subtlety, charm, and winning over the suspect have been shown, from Law & Order to Guantanamo, to be more effective. It’s also much more entertaining and easier on the ears. 

The staging is as perpendicular as the set with full fronts, full backs, and full profiles in a stylized manner. Jackson studied with Master Biomechanics instructor Gennadi Bogdanovich which, combined with his interest in Meyerhold’s performance theory, may explain parts of the staging choices. 

Luckily this bombast ceases after the first long scene, and we are thrust into a royal committee meeting. Actors wear the British flag lapel pin, but speak in heartland American dialects. The detached speech patterns are the cold cadence of policy wonks or characters from the CIA TV series Rubicon—or perhaps a Mamet play about con-men who hold their cards very close to the vest. “Say the lines as simply as possible”—as Mamet instructs in his controversial acting book True and False—seems to be taken to its logical conclusion in this production.  

The three raised monitor-displays reflect close-ups of the two queens. Often we see the pain and desperation in their eyes on the monitor that are not observable from mid-audience. Perhaps it is a mismatch of genres that causes this play’s artistic slippage. The direction and style might have worked well if it were video or film or if that aspect were enlarged. On the stage, the expression is too subtle and seems automaton-like.  

Notable exceptions that periodically rescue the play are the performances of Scott Coopwood and John Mercer. Coopwood plays Leicester, Elizabeth’s erstwhile lover who seems also to be wooing her rival. Tall, bald, bearded, handsome, with a lush baritone, he is animated, acute, and angular is a rectilinear world. He speaks the speech facilely with alacrity so that you can understand every word and every feeling and nuance coupled with it. Philanderer and wheedler that he is, he is the only principal who reveals any humanity worth caring about. 

John Mercer as Shrewsbury QE’s Chancellor* is a Brit and just as attuned to the proper delivery of classic verse as Coop. His posh Received accent almost mocks the flatland tones of the other actors by its contrast, and doubly so since this is supposed to be England, right? Were they directed to stand-out in this fashion? Did they ignore the direction and follow their gut? Were these discrepancies wholly overlooked? Or am I somehow missing the point? 

(* Schiller played fast and loose with historical characters and invents some for the play.) 

The real star of the show is Nina Ball’s set. Rectangles of office furniture at right angles, two doors with observable corridors (Chris Paulina’s video feed from the corridors are the most exciting parts of the play), a one-way mirror from any cop drama, the display monitors, and a string of flashing red monitor lights bring us into the world during the pre-set. The set does tricks to reveal a grassy exercise yard which gives a symbolic picture of Mary sunk low. It affords a properly uneven playing field for the confrontation between the two cousins. 

The sound design of David Graves shakes your nerves and rattles your brain like a freight train in the night. Doors close with a boom, the pews of Shotgun’s Ashby Stage quake, and the sounds of terror begin as thrilling, but, by repetition, become jarring. Nobody sleeps through this play. 

MARY STUART is a bold experiment that, to my eye, lacked unity and was jarring in its juxtaposition of styles and unemotional expression, but may have the seeds of something greater if reworked perhaps for another medium. I will eagerly attend Jackson’s offerings with much anticipation, and you should, too, for he is an exceptional talent. 


Frederick Schiller’s MARY STUART plays through November 7. 

Presented by Shotgun Players, Patrick Dooley, artistic director  

At Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way) across from Ashby BART station.  

Tickets/info or 510-841-6500 ext. 303.  

Adaptation and direction by Mark Jackson, Costume Design by Christine Crook, Light Design by Jacob Petrie, Projection Design by Chris Paulina, Set Design by Nina Ball. Sound Design by David Graves, with Stage Management by Erin Searfus 

WITH: Jesse Caldwell, Scott Coopwood, Stephanie Gularte, John Mercer, Peter Ruocco, Ryan Tasker, Beth Wilmurt Dara Yazdani  


John A. McMullen II is a member of SFBATCC and ATCA. He is beholden to EJ Dunne’s perceptive editing. Comments, etc., to