Friday, 8 May 2015

Miss Shakespeare is no "miss" -- a palpable hit !

Backdrop info :  The Judith Shakespeare imagined by 38-year-old creator Tracey Power in her self-described "saucy new musical" bears no known resemblance to William Shakespeare's younger daughter, she the surviving twin of brother Hamnet who died at age 11 from flu or scarlet fever or plague. The Judith of official record was another 17th century working class mom who for a time slung pints at a local pub called, symbolically, The Cage. 

A couple of months before The Bard's demise in 1616, Judith married a local philandering vintner named Thomas Quiney. At about the same time it became known that a previous mistress and her baby had recently died in childbirth. Outraged and humiliated, on his deathbed WS cut Quiney out of his will. Subsequently Thomas and Judith had three boys, the first of whom they named Shakespeare. He died in infancy at age one. The other two boys were also taken by flu or scarlet fever or plague years later, dying some months apart when each was in their late teens.

So the Judith of history is not Tracey Power's Judith in the least. Power's creation is a pre-nuptial feisty woman who's fierce in her wish of release from The Cage that imprisons her in order to do live theatre just like Dad. Power's Judith is imagined as a playwright with talent equal to Billy Bard's, but suppressed by local laws and customs. (Women were forbidden to act on public stage in Elizabethan / Jacobean times.)

Power's aim in the script : Power's point driving her forward is how contemporary theatre customs continue to reflect significant gender inequity. So she set out to create her own current legacy : an all-woman cast exploring the world of her imagined Judith leading a troupe of "ballsy" rebels to produce an underground stage production. 

She states in her Playwright's Notes : "...What inspired me to write a play with all women? Was it political? Truthfully, I just fell in love with a story, and I wanted to tell it. The questions have been on my mind, though, as recent job studies show that there is a 70/30 division of men and women in the arts...In 400 years (since WS passed) is 30% enough?"*

Should readers surmise Power is a didactic feminist shill, fear not. The show's narrator (Susinn McFarlen) sets the ironic tone of the piece right up front in the opener : "Here in The Cage we believe / That making theatre is like making a child. / If you want to be truly successful / You need more than just a penis."

Still, mefears the freakishly talented Power is a wee coy on the subject of gender politics as a motivator. No question it is huge despite her wit and comedy and musical wraps. From the get-go the chorus speaks as if to an audience of women only : "Come see what you're missing, the passion of life, see what you're pissing away -- don't piss it away!" followed by this further pinch from Isabel (Power): "If it's passion you seek, it doesn't come to those who are weak." This leitmotif message is what Power and The Escape Artists are shouting out -- engagingly rather than deafeningly -- to all their sisters in the arts across the land.

Storyline is clever : Judith (Amanda Lisman) says this about what she wants from life and her pedigreed bloodline : "Give me dreams that smolder!" And so the plot unfolds. The only way out of her distaff dilemma is through it, she concludes. She convinces five of her friends including elder sister Susanna (Caroline Cave) to join her in rehearsing and performing a play. At first, they think, for themselves alone in Quiney's pub basement. Just for the self-actualization thrill in a man's world. But then comes the "ballsy" part : they decide to go public, in drag, as men just to see if they can get away with it.

Along the way we get snippets of the lives of these women : the forever miscarrying Katherine (Medina Hahn). Margaret Moore (Erin Moon) whose husband is a righteous starch in the church but perpetually un-starched in bed. The bastard orphan Hannah Storley (Pippa Mackie) who's life is a quest for her real self. As narrator, McFarlen ghosts the late Will and has jousting good arguments with Judith. Using contempo vernacular, she accuses WS of "theft of voice" with his King's Men players who dress up 12-year-old boys to play women's roles : "You write about us as if you know who we are!" she goads him. Act One ends with a Les Mis kind of chorus called "The Littlest Soldier" where Judith's actors announce they're going to go public "wearing the balls of men" instead of hiding perpetually in the shrouds of The Cage.

Act Two limns with charm and irony in the various songs as the women prepare to come out "acting like gentlemen". They laugh that maybe they should put cucumbers or turnips or squash down their trousers : "If the shape looks right the illusion is real!" they chortle, admonishing one another to "Keep your pizzle in your pants!" Shortly sister Susanna announces she must quit the troupe because she's afraid of being unmasqued and ruining her doctor husband's reputation and career : "Purity and spotlessness / Susanna must live up to this / Give me the strength to obey." 

In response Judith proclaims "The life I saved was my own, here's my voice, here I am, forgive my form, forget my face, here I am!" And with that the troupe doffs their men's costumes to reveal and celebrate their woman-ness in their cotton skivvies. "Grandfather would be very confused by it all!" niece Bess announces as they all join in a final chorus of "Come see what you're missing, the passion of life, see what you're pissing away -- don't piss it away!" 

Production values aplenty : Power and her co-founder of The Escape Artists theatre Steve Charles have produced a remarkably tuneful script. The numerous songs mostly poke fun at men's peccadilloes then and now rather than treat them with undue sardonic spin. Accompanied by piano and string bass, the mood is more honkey-tonk than hard-edged blues. 

Director James MacDonald and Power put together some excellent footwork in the characters' blocking and choreography : all the cast were well-coached to project their expressions full throttle and hold nothing back physically in their moves. The moody underground set with its distressed furniture and matching Jacobean outfits plus some toga-like sequences were visually rich and lit delightfully as well.

Acting kudos deserved : As Judith, Lisman was in command throughout, with eye twinkles and flashes and grimaces and triumphal smiles perfectly delivered underneath her power crown of red hair. Caroline Cave as her sister Susanna turned in a bravura! performance that was rich in every nuance reflecting her personal conflicts between obligations to both sis & hubby. As narrator, Susinn McFarlen was superb with a resonant rounded pitch of voice that enhanced her ironic byplay with Judith. Tremendous contributions from each of the rest of the cast : their facial expressions and physical interplay throughout were a delight. Singers they are, each and every one, and they clearly enjoyed belting out the solos and choruses.

Who gonna like : Faithful readers will know by now my infatuation with small-stage productions that are up close & personal. The 25 X 25 foot Performance Works stage was perfect! for this show, thrusting the music and dance and thematic riffs right into the audience's lap. The 100+ in attendance ON cheered gustily and easily wanted more. There is no doubt Tracey Power is on an arc of personal and artistic development that will propel her far and fast in contemporary theatre. She and her posse are a force of positive energy audiences will thrill to for years to come. 

Particulars : Produced by The Escape Artists in association with Musical Theatre Works and Kay Meek Centre. Book & lyrics by Tracey Power. Music co-written with Steve Charles. Performed by The Escape Artists troupe in repertory with another play, J. Caesar. Appearing May 9, 10, 12, 14 and 17 at Performance Works on Granville Island contiguous to the Granville Island Hotel. Tickets and schedules available at [Moving to West Vancouver's Kay Meek Centre May 21-29. Tickets and schedules there by phone at 604.981.6335 or via]

Production Crew : Director James MacDonald.  Musical Director Steve Charles.  Choreographer Tracey Power.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Set/Lighting Designer Cory Sincennes.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.  Producer Barbara Tomasic.  Production Manager Leah Foreman. Quiney's Wig Christine Hackman.  Pianist Bonnie Northgraves.  Costume Assistant Stephanie Kong.  Costume Assistant Stacie Steadman.  Venue Technician Daniel Tessy.  Costume Assistant Mickey Powers.  Program Designer Stu Power.  Publicist Sammie Gough.  Photographer Emily Cooper.

Performers :  Caroline Cave.  Medina Hahn.  Amanda Lisman.  Pippa Mackie.  Susinn McFarlen.  Erin Moon.  Tracey Power.

* Addendum :  Statistics from North America and Britain reveal the gender-representation imbalance in professional theatre. Women currently comprise the majority of university theatre graduates in all disciplines. Women consume some 60% of seats at professional theatre festivals like Bard on the Beach. Yet only some 20% of produced plays in Canada are written by women, though 50% of the Playwright Guild's membership are women.

[N.B. BLR is indebted to Marsha Lederman of the Globe and Mail for the above metrics culled from her excellent full-page feature on the subject Saturday, May 2nd, subtitled "Women, long underrepresented in the industry, are beginning to push back".]


No comments:

Post a Comment