Monday, May 11, 2015

Miss Shakespeare

When you see a lot of theater (or any other art form), it's axiomatic that they can't all be winners. Recently, there have been few highs and some really exceptional lows. (Fortunately, some of the best stuff I've seen this year has been youth-oriented theater, so at least I can rest assured that my kids are getting exposed to some of the better efforts while their minds are still forming). I'm not going to name any names, but some of the worst has been presented by organizations that really should know better.

But the losing streak was broken this weekend when we saw a new musical, Miss Shakespeare, presented at the intimate and flexible Performance Works Theatre on Granville Island in Vancouver. With a seven-woman cast, the piece is running in rep with an all-female, futuristic adaptation of Julius Caesar. The Miss Shakespeare of the title is the Bard's younger daughter, Judith, who feels passionately moved to make art (and naughtier pursuits) but is stifled by restrictions on women's participation in the theater. Dauntless, she persuades a tavern-keeper to lend her his cellar and assembles a group of women to be her secret players. Despite the risks if they are discovered, the women launch themselves into the brave new world of making theater, first enacting Venus and Adonis and later tackling Judith's first play, a telling of the story of Atalanta and taking the show on the road, daringly dressed as men (and leading to the entertaining but rather puerile number "Keep Your Pizzle in Your Pants").

Each woman represents a different type of female oppression, and each receives an opportunity to sing about her life. While the production notes refer to the music as "influenced by European cabaret," the songs really are a pastiche of musical theater styles, including a gospel number, rock-pop, and Elizabethan-inflected harmonies. One married woman remains a virgin -- her pious husband will not touch her and she cannot seek companionship outside her marriage. Another agonizes over her fourteenth miscarriage and imagines what each child might have been like. The lone daughter among nine sons (played with spunk by the playwright, Tracey Power) laments her struggles to live as fierce and fulfilling a life as her brothers, and relishes an opportunity to try on male roles and trousers. One member of the troupe, the bastard daughter of an actor born to a well-born, unmarried mother, inserts herself into the group and teaches them something important about empathy when another member of the troupe finds herself inconveniently pregnant. A sixth player is Susannah Shakespeare Hall, Judith's elder sister, who struggles to reconcile her desire for stability in her bourgeois family with her desire to support her sister.

The seventh actor is a white-haired woman who functions as a verse-speaking storyteller. Masked, she also plays the apparition of William Shakespeare (who says a ghost has to be dead, he posits) who periodically appears to Judith to spar with her and spurs her on to greater commitment to her artistic life. A self-styled Prospero to Judith's Miranda, she insists on her own agency as something other than the famous man's daughter. It wasn't particularly surprising to me when this storyteller is revealed in the play's epilogue to be Judith herself, fifty years later, reflecting back from a world which now allows women, including her own niece, to make plays.

One additional character appears in several scenes -- that tavern-keeper who provides the rehearsal space. He is played by several members of the cast in turn, each putting on a bar apron and assuming the role. This proves to be a rare misstep in the production, because he turns out to be an emotionally important character -- the man who has loved Judith for years, teaches her to write, and ultimately marries and then betrays her. By allowing the one male character to be played by interchangeable women, the production may be attempting to reverse years of similar treatment of female characters, but a critical emotional conflict and developing relationship was undermined to the play's detriment.

This is essentially a woman's-conflict-with-society play, and not one that centers on interpersonal conflicts, which I why I think the relationship between Judith and Susannah presents another muddled opportunity. Susannah is always conflicted about her support of Judith's enterprise, presenting the voice of conformity with social standards, although she decides to go along with it as a member of the troupe. When Susannah drops out of the company on the eve of their performance, it is hardly unexpected by the audience, but it also seems not to surprise Judith and company. The show goes on with nary a hiccup, and any tension therefore dissolves. A good deal of time is invested in developing this character and their relationship, but it fails to come to any important climax. To show Judith's struggle not just with her father's influence but also the women in her family, perhaps a stronger choice would have been to have the storyteller play not just Judith's father speaking in her head but also her mother. Anne Hathaway is certainly an interesting character and presenting her could have been very compelling.

The musical numbers are not the most memorable songs ever written, but they are certainly more than competent. They do a good job of lightening the load of so much suppression, and make for a strong reminder that, though the play is set in the early 17th century (the period-indicative costumes in shades of cream and tan are beautifully done, and the set with Tudor-style rafters, wood floor, and rough-hewn furniture topped with glowing lanterns sets the space in time while keeping it cozy), these women face daily challenges that are not as far removed from our own as sometimes we might like to think.

This is a solid and enjoyable piece of work. I hope that it draws plenty of attention, because it could be a very welcome piece in university settings where casts with many strong roles for women are frequently needed (and the production and musical requirements are not onerous). I think it would be a little bawdy for most high schools, but if Powers were willing to slightly adapt some of the references to asses, pizzles, and "putting it in," it would otherwise be a terrific educational theater piece at that level too.

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