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Shakespeare's Sister

Potential Wanting

By Emma Whipday
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia
Friday, April 7, 2017, C–5&6 (front middle stalls)
Directed by Jim Warren

Judith, in simple Elizabethan waist jacket, blousey shirt and maroon dress holds her hands up to her head in wonder.
Ginna Hoben plays Judith Shakespeare in the American Shakespeare Center's production of Emma Whipday's new play Shakespeare's Sister at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.

This is a story about potential. Potential in the past as well as in the future. Potential of place, of persons, of things real and imagined, of craft and art, of soul, of mind. Potential realized and potential wanting, if not wasted.

Shakespeare's Sister, a new play by Emma Whipday, is a "what might have been" take on a "what probably was" story by giving William Shakespeare a playwriting sibling. The American Shakespeare Center gave the play its world premier theatrical production at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, during the company's Actors' Renaissance Season, part of the company's nascent initiative to stretch the template of its "Ren Season" methodology. From preshow music on, we are treated to the heightened potential of the event, but though we attain some satisfying moments along the way and are treated to superb performances by this troupe of players, at the play's conclusion we are yet suspended in a state of potential.

"This is not a true story," the author writes in her notes for both the published script and the play program. Shakespeare had a sister, but not one named Judith, the protagonist of Shakespeare's Sister, nor one who wrote plays, as far as we know. Whipday actually is imagining another writer's imagining: Virginia Woolf who, in A Room of One's Own, wrote "Let me imagine, since the facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say." Whipday expands on such a character to "reimagine Shakespeare's life from the perspective of the women who lived on the edge of the world of the theater, but didn't belong to it: women who sewed the theater's costumes and inhabited the adjoining brothels, but were forbidden the roles of actor and writer."

Let me imagine, for a moment, how such a premise could have played at the Blackfriars Playhouse, the world's only replica of Shakespeare's indoor theater, reyling on universal lighting and featuring the audience in immediate proximity. My imagination soars further when applying the Ren Season aesthete: actors with no director putting on a play with only a week's rehearsal time. Add another boost to this daydream: this company's talent and experience working the Blackfriars space, including improvisational interactions with the audience. These all are ingredients at hand capable of turning a writer's imagination into a scrumptious enactment of life "on the edge of the world of the theater" in Shakespeare's time. Beyond that, these players' staging a play newly written for them would be the Holy Grail for any theater intending to replicate Shakespeare's production process.

Alas, my imagination outstretches reality. Whipday, a Levenhulme Early Career Fellow at University College London, lectures at Shakespeare's Globe and directs "practice as research" productions of early modern plays in London and Oxford. However, Shakespeare's Sister doesn't fully mine the Blackfriars Ren Season DNA, except in the talent of the players, and plays more like a project born and bred in the study. Though the play's first production is at the Blackfriars, the Samuel French–published script lists its first performance as a staged reading at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2015, and it is written with a proscenium-arch staging in mind. And though this is a Ren Season production, it has a director, Jim Warren. That's not a fault, as Warren, artistic director and co-founder of the American Shakespeare Center (ASC), is an accomplished director, and this production is sure and smooth. Other than a couple of awkward scene transitions that in the script rely on blackouts and set changes (the Blackfriars has nothing to black out and uses no sets), Warren adequately adjusts the play to the thrust-stage space. Still, just imagine how different this enterprise might have been if it were bred under true-to-Blackfriars Ren Season conditions (imagination fired, here is my plea to the ASC to do just that with new scripts).

With Shakespeare's Sister, Whipday is as interested in chronicling Elizabethan theater as she is in dramatic imagination. She peoples the cast with historical figures. In addition to William Shakespeare and his parents and children (but no Anne) are actors Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and Augustine Phillips, Playhouse Manager Phillip Henslowe, and the queen's chief prosecutor Thomas Egerton. She imbues these famous names with vivid, modern-leaning liveliness. Nevertheless, too much of the scholastic lecturer seeps into the script, hijacking the dialogue with pedantic observations on the commercial impact of plague, the nature of touring troupes, playhouse management, women performing in court masques, and Shrove Tuesday attacks on whores.

Judith (Ginna Hoben), gazes awestruck upon first entering the Rose Theater in London, pointing out its elements: "Here the stage—there the tiring house—the upper stage—and beyond, the yard, the gallery." All she lacks is a diagram. Alleyn (Josh Innerst), about to embark on a provincial tour, decries the lot of the actor "competing with the bear-baitings where half-crazed animals tear at each other and the crowd screams for their blood, with the hangings where the bodies drop faster than our stage-battles can make 'em. Wet to the skin with stage blood culled from some beast's belly, making a brave death daily as I bruise my shins blue with my fall to the boards. Summers crammed full of plays, full of words, until my head swims with 'em, and my throat is dry and hoarse, and I lose all sense of what I'm speaking. Then the winters, the plague season, the numbing tours to God-forsaken towns where none give us welcome—the days without work and without food, scrimping and saving and trying to live." All not news to Judith, to whom he's speaking. Shakespeare himself (Grant Davis), at the play's climactic moment, intones that his "one dream is to die a prosperous and contented gentleman, with my genius acknowledged and work that will live beyond me." It all sounds like those National Park Service–produced historical dramatizations you get at birth-of-the-nation forts and mansions.

Despite her historical fealty, Whipday plays loosely with the historical timeline (well, why not? Shakespeare's plays were notoriously anachronistic and factually loopy). The setting is 1592, but the dialogue and its historic references sound more 1608. Shakespeare has left the theater to write poetry under the Earl of Southampton's patronage, and Burbage (Benjamin Reed), instead of a stage superstar, is little more than a bit player on the outs with his theater impresario father and so working for rival Henslowe (David Anthony Lewis). Judith may be on the vanguard of women's liberation in the time of Queen Elizabeth, but her greatest contribution to history is that she gets Will to promise her he will leave off "dribbling your words out for a pampered few who do not need them," join with Burbage to form a new company, and write plays "not for the few, but for the many." On behalf of Shakesgeeks everywhere, I thank you, Judith.

Other than in these studiously developed dramatic moments, Whipday has a good ear for casual dialogue, creating inspired comedy in her characters' interactions. Whipday also indulges in insider humor. Judith has trouble reading the handwriting in a letter from her brother that Alleyn has delivered to her at Stratford-upon-Avon. "It seems he has found a patron—Henry someone," she says, and after Hoben gives up on deciphering the scribble, she asks "Do you know him?" Alleyn ponders a brief moment, then shrugs: "There are many Henrys," he says. Whipday winks at the anti-Stratfordian conspiracies through Shakespeare's own son, Hamnet (Lauren Ballard). "I do not believe in Papa," he says. "I have never seen him." When the neighboring brothel prostitutes—also managed by Henslowe and his daughter, Joan (Allison Glenzer)—decide to enact Judith's play in secret, one worries that it would be against the law. "You silly goose, all we do here is against the law," Joan retorts. Shakespeare's Sister's biggest laugh comes with Burbage's incredulity that the women will play men—incredulity too current today, even in the duplicitous face of the established practice in Burbage's time of men playing women.

Where Shakespeare's Sister is most deft is in threading the essence of perspective through its plot. Judith's play is the biblical story of Vashti, a deposed Persian queen of a king who has taken up with a Jewish concubine not knowing her religion. Vashti's brother discovers the girl's religion and persuades the king to condemn all Jews to execution, but the girl appeals to the king's love, saves her people, and Vashti and her brother are executed. "But I have focused on what the Biblical tale skirts over," Judith says: "the positions of the two women, the deposed queen and the concubine, as they use the king's favor to battle for their lives." She sees herself as Vashti, but after being caught in her love affair with Alleyn, she comes to realize she's seen as the outsider concubine.

When she learns that staging biblical stories is illegal, Judith goes underground with her play. She doesn't grasp the true extent of her naiveté until, being prosecuted by Egerton (René Thornton Jr.), she wonders how the "Word of our Lord" could be considered treasonous. "Your play tells of an ageing and childless queen, a queen whose throne is usurped because she will not be subject to the rule of men. This queen is usurped by a young, beautiful, fertile girl, a girl who follows in secret a foreign and maligned religion. This girl's marriage protects all those who are persecuted because of this religion, and ensures the death of the queen and her advisers. Can you truly not see how this may be read as treason?" Hoben's Judith looks dumbfounded with this enlightenment. "I had not seen it so before," she says softly. As with today when personal, professional, political, and religious perspectives warp every news report, comment, and gesture into a variety of interpretations, Egerton notes, "There are those who would see treason in it, Mistress Shakespeare. There are those who would be glad to." Ironically, only in prison does Judith witness the contextual reality of a society that disenfranchises women yet is ruled by a woman who commands unwavering respect and duty from the men who serve her.

"This body, this body you took and used and loved, this body bound you to me, and so you had it locked away." This passage from Judith's play is spoken by Vashti pleading with the king. We first hear it in the first scene when Alleyn reads it aloud upon discovering Judith's manuscript as he delivers Will's letter to her. She's impressed with his delivery. During the prostitutes' rehearsal of the play, we hear the line again. Joan is now playing Vashti, and Judith cuts her off with instruction to be more declamatory. "Like the great Ned Alleyn, you mean?" asks Burbage (he's playing the king in this secret production). "Yes, exactly," Judith replies. "I wrote it so. I dreamt those words. I know how they should sound." Burbage, however, challenges her presumption and asks if a broken heart really feels like a declamation. "No," Judith says. "It's an ache. A veil drawn over colors and shapes and sounds that were sharp and bright and clean. It's a dullness, a pain, a weight in your chest."

Burbage turns to Joan: "Show us," he says, simply. And she does.

Rather, Glenzer does. The next couple of minutes of Glenzer as Joan playing Vashti provides some of the most riveting drama the Blackfriars has ever seen—a pole-vault-height bar given what we've seen on this stage for a dozen years now. As she sheds real tears, we can hear Vashti's and Joan's heart break in the crack of Glenzer's voice, a performance to slacken the jaws of stunned listeners.

Sitting on the stage, Burbage in floral vest, unbuttonned over puffy white shirt, faces Judith with his hand on her left shoulder, she dressed in simple Elizabethan waistcoat and dress.
Richard Burbage (Benjamin Reed, right) comforts Judth in the American Shakespeare Center's production of Emma Whipday's Shakespeare's Sister at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.

Such and similar performances elevate Shakespeare's Sister to the realm of good theater. Hoben leads the way in the title role, she a real playwright in addition to an actress playing a playwright (and, indeed, an actress, too), but the entire ensemble displays character depths with sharp performances. One bears special mention, though: Reed as Burbage. This Ren Season, Reed has emerged as a standout talent, from his insecure Lorenzo and show-stealing Arragon in Merchant of Venice and his slippery Sicinius in Coriolanus to his stoically humble Burbage here. Reed displays not only courageous craftsmanship, he masters the Blackfriars play space like a guitar god does a Strat, connecting with the audience often (always appropriately) and wresting the spotlight to his reactions though he's in an extreme corner of the stage (always appropriately).

Except, of course, there's no spotlight: It's psychological in this space, imaginary, which is the real matter Reed and the rest of the company use to make great theater here. With so much potential in Shakespeare's Sister premiering during the Ren Season at the Blackfriars Playhouse, it needed only Burbage's simple instruction to Joan to truly achieve: Show us.

Eric Minton
April 20, 2017

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