Bloody Mary, Rachel Shukert's comedy about the life of Queen Mary I of England, now playing at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, is, to be blunt, a deluge of profanity and sexual perversion. Mary's reign—as if the monarch's titular nickname isn't indication enough—racked 16th-century England with religious and political turmoil. Hundreds were burned at the stake as Mary sought to redeliver her country to Catholicism. At the Clemente, Shukert has the moxie to drag this troubled period through the anachronistic gutter of our modern, sacrilegious, pornography-soaked culture. The product is a sex comedy of the basest, most violent type.
To be clear, I think this is a good thing. Anyone with a taste for the kind of obscene—and obscenely smart—linguistic excess that made, say, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut such a delight should make time for Third Man Productions's lewd gem. If more history were given the same irreverent treatment, we might feel less alienated from it. We certainly wouldn't be bored by it. Shukert's work is crudity par excellence.
The evening begins with King Henry VIII (Ian Unterman) loudly sodomizing Queen Catherine of Aragon (Kristin Slaysman). When Catherine points out that this particular method has yet to produce an heir, Henry offers unsurely, "This is how they did it back at Eton." A brief anatomy lesson by the queen and a second, more "proper" attempt later—which includes a mid-coital tableau and a suitably cinematic flash of white light—and Mary herself (the excellent Audrey Lynn Weston) emerges meekly upstage, dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl.
What follows hews impressively close both to what we know and what we think we know of Mary's life and times. Henry soon throws Catherine over for Anne Boleyn (played in hilarious drag by James Ryan Caldwell), who bears him the daughter who will later become Queen Elizabeth I (also Caldwell). Henry then throws over Boleyn (who ends up beheaded) for Jane Seymour (whom we do not see here). Seymour finally bears Henry his much-desired son, Edward (Reginald Veneziano). However, in quick succession both Henry and Edward shuffle off their mortal coils, leading to a short squabble over the crown, a political skirmish that Mary eventually wins.
Good comedy doesn't pervert the essence of its subject as much as it points up the absurdity that's already there. From her promiscuous father—Mary's ill health is rumored to have been the result of congenital syphilis contracted during her birth—to her plainly chilly marriage to Phillip II of Spain at the venerable age of 37, the story of Mary's life is already rife with sexual undertones (even leaving aside her intense devotion to Catholicism, a religion of subsumed eroticism if ever there was one). Shukert simply turns these into wildly glaring overtones.
For instance, when young Mary catches her father receiving oral favors from Boleyn, the king stammers that the service is actually a kind of medical procedure. Mary innocently presses:
Mary: Why can't Mummy [do] it for you?
Henry: Because Catholics can't do that, Mary!
Mary: Cardinal Wolsey can. I've seen.
Those times Shukert moves away from such easy vernacular into what I can only call heightened ribaldry—inventive, period-sounding vulgarity, essentially—the wonderful cast rises easily to meet her. When his sixth wife denies the dying Henry one last fling, he rumbles, "Such treason! To deny thy dying husband a final tussle of the flesh? When God alone knows what kind of [female genitalia] he shalt find in heaven! Hearken thus, slattern! Or thy shall au revoir to one's tête as did an ill-fated queen long before thou couched here."
Such pervasive indecency would grow thin without a human, emotional anchor. This is exactly what Weston provides in her turn as Mary. She is the nerd who discovers that even after she's bested the bully—in this case, by strapping him to a pole and torching him—she will always be greeted icily by those people whose acceptance she craves. Weston's sweet insecurity is the necessary counterweight to Bloody Mary's coarseness.
At bottom, this rampant solecism speaks to more than just a gleefully depraved imagination; it's clear and admirable evidence of Shukert's love for the language, even if that love is more fit for the brothel than the nunnery. Oscar Wilde offered that "we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." Perhaps, but as Bloody Mary shows, sometimes the gutter works just fine.