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Not Enough Distance

October 11, 2010

images.jpegOne of the key reasons that directors and producers choose to stage classic dramas written in a past era is for their function as prisms through which we can view the issues and challenges of our own time. Audiences in Shakespeare's day were, in addition to having a rollicking good time, encouraged to see the parallels between, say, the trials of Henry IV and the tumultuous political and religious power tactics going on at the upper echelons of their country at that time.

I was thinking about this as I watched Mark Jackson's mostly riveting adaptation of Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage on Friday night. The drama has a lot of contemporary appeal because of its portrayal of the fraught relationship between two monarchs. One clearly has the upper hand from a power perspective (Queen Elizabeth I), and the other, Queen Mary of Scots, though suppliant, is a force in her own right for her ability to move men to undertake rash deeds on her behalf.

The American Conservatory Theater did the play not too long ago; there was a recent production from London's Donmar Warehouse starring Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter which visited Broadway.

Unlike the McTeer/Walter version which I saw on Broadway and found to be dry and slow, Jackson's production is thrilling. I loved the taut-lyrical text which balances a contemporary feel with a timeless lyricism, the simmering rage of the characters, the rigorous and compelling performances from all members of the cast -- without exception -- and moments of gravelly humor. The push-pull of the relationship between Beth Wilmurt as Queen Elizabeth and Stephanie Gularte as Mary -- actresses who match pride with sensitivity -- keeps us constantly engaged.

Where the production falls short for me is in the decision to bring out the contemporary political parallels in a way that's way too obvious. The "surveillance chic" of the setting -- an austere government screening facility with nondescriptly-painted, flimsy walls, a one-way viewing screen and video screens -- puts the comparison between Renaissance England and modern America too much in our faces.

Part of the power of experiencing a play like this is having to work to draw whatever conclusions you want about contemporary life. Jackson hands it all to us on a platter and leaves little to our imaginations.


  • I'm very happy you enjoyed the show, and appreciate in particular your compliments to the actors. I'm a bit biased, naturally, but I agree they're doing stellar work.

    I somewhat understand - though a bit differently - your point about the contemporary design being obvious. It is obvious - just as Schiller's striking modernity was so obvious to me when I first read the play. It didn't take any imagination on my part to connect his 19th century drama about 16th century events to today. The connection was ultra clear, and seems to me merely a fact.

    Partly for that reason, I don't agree that our expressing the obvious fact of Schiller's contemporaneity in the design leaves little to the audience's imagination. The set design and use of video screens is not at all realistic, and imagination must fill in the gaps. Also, the characters remain the compelling, messy figures Schiller wrote them to be, and the loose threads of intellectual and emotional logic he fringed them with still demand imagination in order to be questioned and reconciled. That's what we were most interested in highlighting.

    I don't know that it would have been at all imaginative of us, or more compelling to an audience's imagination, to have the characters dressed in 16th or 19th century garb against a similar scenic backdrop, or to plunk them in the fascist 1930s or something like that. THAT, I would agree, would be obvious in a way that lacked imagination. Our giving the play a contemporary design is simply our way of not pretending in the slightest that this ISN'T a contemporary piece, that it is rather some "old" play. It's not old. It's being done right now. So we designed it for now, and strove to keep the emphasis on the characters, their story, and their political and moral conundrums.

    Mark J

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 11, 2010 at 3:28 PM  

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