Empire strikes back

Mark Jackson adapts Schiller's Mary Stuart for the post-9/11 generation

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Shotgun Players revisit a centuries-old political conflict in Mary Stuart
PHOTO BY JESSICA PALOPOLI

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.

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