Shotgun Players' 'Mary Stuart' Imagines Paranoiac History

Photo: Killer queen. Beth Wilmurt brings totalitarian cruelty to her interpretation of Queen Elizabeth, while Stephanie Gularte presents a tragic titular heroine in 'Mary Stuart.'
Jessica Palopoli, Shotgun Players/Courtesy
Killer queen. Beth Wilmurt brings totalitarian cruelty to her interpretation of Queen Elizabeth, while Stephanie Gularte presents a tragic titular heroine in 'Mary Stuart.'

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"Mary Stuart," adapted and directed by Mark Jackson for the Shotgun Players on the Ashby Stage, works as a proof-text for the notion that a play need not be "modernized" to be modern. Though this Friedrich Schiller-penned history play, a subversive lampoon of the rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, debuted in Germany in 1800, it could've debuted this past Friday at the Ashby Stage.

Beneath the Elizabethan patois and Weimar Classicism (Schiller wasn't Shakespeare, but he was close), "Mary Stuart" is about political grandstanding and opportunism. The Shotgun Players have freed "Stuart" from its deictic clutches. You needn't have been in Weimar, Germany in the 19th century to see that this play is still vital.

Caught between melodrama and epic, Schiller's play is a revisionist take on the ordered execution of Mary Queen of Scots; Jackson's, while faithful, is a claustrophobic immorality play, a paranoid thriller that makes Mary's interrogation chamber look like Guantanamo Bay. Jackson sets the play in the present, but his production feels unsettlingly atemporal. By flanking the stage with three closed-circuit TVs, Jackson deals in the postmodern anxiety of surveillance. While the screens are sometimes used to display a close-up of an actor - especially effective at bold-facing Mary - they lend us a view of two sterilely lit corridors backstage. One of the production's most shocking scenes, eerily similar to a blood-soaked moment in Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's political drama "Cache" (2005), happens in these corridors.

Though "Mary Stuart" deals in extra-human omniscience afforded by technology, the human aspects dominate the stage. As the titular heir presumptive, Stephanie Gularte turns out a perfectly hammy, brooding performance despite being tethered to a chair for most of the play's two-hours. She finds a tragic heroine in Mary, exhibiting an androgynous emotional range equal parts Hamlet and Joan of Arc.

As Elizabeth, Shotgun regular Beth Wilmurt rejects the stately, farthingale-clad Elizabeth seen in traditional adaptations of the queen in film and literature. And this is where Schiller offers his boldest hand: Queen as calculating killer, a corrupt politician whose convictions supersede human lives and who mistakes ambition for morality. His treatment almost insinuates proto-Fascism. Wilmurt's stoicism frequently belies the complexities of her character but then again, what monarch wouldn't try to hide her emotions?

While this interpretation of Mary Queen of Scots maintains a sense of ambiguity, the difference is clear between who is accused and who ought to be implicated. Religious friction is here, too, but it's less an antagonism between Catholics and Protestants and more an issue of how much credence the two women put in faith to get out of a jam.

Though stamped out by a screaming match - there are many in "Mary Stuart" - or atonal sounds by David Graves, there are moments of irreverent humor. Leicester (Scott Coopwood) is as torn between sides as he is between comedy and tragedy, and Elizabeth's right-hand pet Aubespine (the young Dara Yazdani) shifts from droll bit character to someone wrongly entangled in a few rich plot turns.

"Mary Stuart" is a chilling piece of historical fiction. The minimal set design effectively imagines parallel dystopian worlds of the past and present. Mark Jackson's stark vision looks and feels Orwellian. It works for 1568, 1800 or 2010 but on the Ashby Stage, it feels frighteningly intimate.

Kick back and watch closed-circuit TV with Ryan at [email protected]

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