Thursday 10 November 2016

Miss Shakespeare wows 'em all over again

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  In Elizabethan / Jacobean England, women were forbidden to perform on stage. Men played women, boys played girls. But if as a woman your creative juices flow and you've got Wm. Shakespeare's DNA coursing through your veins as his younger daughter, being told you can't do theatre just fires you up. You gotta do what you gotta do. Such is the conceit behind the Tracey Power / Steve Charles musical Miss Shakespeare.

Power imagines for her play Shakespeare's daughter Judith who is not just a beer slinger at a local pub. She's a frustrated unpublished & unproduced playwright with skills not equal to Dad's maybe, but notable and consequential. Judith rounds up her pals nicknamed The Daily Gossips. She convinces them to rebrand as a troupe of rebels who're gonna put on a play even if they've got to stuff their trousers with gherkins to properly present their parts.

After rehearsing in the basement of The Cage pub a day a week for months on end, they decide to go public in drag as men in nearby Coventry just to see if they can get away with it.

How it's all put together :  Women in cotton skivvies debating whether it should be a squash or a cucumber or a turnip to tuck into their knickers. Properly stuffed, they troupe forth : "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."

Almost as if addressing an imagined all-woman audience, they chime in chorus : "Come see what you're missing, the passion of life, see what you're pissing away...!" And further goad and prod us spectators : "If it's passion you seek, it doesn't come to those who are weak!"

The storyline rhymes off the women's grievances against their cloistered lives, their plight. Margaret (Erin Moon) has a husband who is a righteous starch in the church but perpetually unstarched in bed. Their marriage unconsummated after years and years. Bastard orphan Hanna (Pippa Mackie) whose whole life is a quest for her real self -- and if playacting somehow brings out the true her, great. Poor Katherine (Medina Hahn) who miscarries some 15 times and whose anxieties seem to prevent her womb from carrying to term a child for her loving husband.

What the show brings to the stage :  Borrowing from the lingo of Wave 2 Feminism, Judith (Meaghan Chenosky) accuses dad WS of theft of voice : "You write about us as if you know who we are!" She argues with him to ditch a certain Thomas Fletcher who apparently helped WS out on his later plays after WS had taken sick. Let me be your ghostwriter, she pleads. But Dad demurs. He fears the family will be humiliated if he's outed about using a woman -- particularly his own daughter -- to help him compose his so-revered theatrical stuff.

So Judith carries on with The Gossips. After they stuff their britches Hanna chortles : "If the shape looks right the illusion is real!" and then sing "Keep your pizzle in your pants! We'll be ruined if it drops!"  Shortly this chummy little sorority is riven, however. Judith's older sister Susannah (Caroline Cave) announces she must quit for fear she will be uncloaked and embarrass her 6-year-old daughter Bess. And her doctor husband's career & reputation face ruin -- all over a tumescent turnip. 

Crestfallen Judith responds understandingly but stakes her own claim shortly : "The life I saved was my own / Here's my voice, here I am / Forgive my form, forget my face / Here I am!" The women go to Coventry. They perform a show called "Atlanta" -- women acting as men playing women. The climax of their show brings out "huge anger and shocked confusion at all their wrongs" that are made plain for Coventry to see.

But like Uncle Bill's All's Well That Ends Well, at the end of Miss Shakespeare now grown-up niece Bess greets her aunt Judith as her personal hero & saint & muse a half century later -- Aunt Judith her inspiration, not the Bard. Bess proudly announces how she's become a playwright herself and is not only accepted in polite society but is about to perform in London. She chuckles "Grandfather would be very confused by it all!" right before the chorus's final triumphant anthem : "Come see what you're missing / The passion of life / See what you're pissing away / Don't piss it away!"

Production values that enhance the piece : As noted 18 months back when it premiered in Vancouver, Power and her co-founder of The Escape Artists theatre company Steve Charles have produced a remarkable and tuneful script. The numerous songs mostly poke fun at men's peccadilloes then and now. Undue finger-pointing and sardonic put-downs are foregone -- despite having ample reason to go there -- instead a lighter tone punctuates and populates the tunes and lyrics. Accompanied by piano and string bass, the musical mood is a mix of honky-tonk that meets up with Kurt Weill who chases down Jacques Brel. Not derivative at all -- this is very original stuff -- but reminiscent nevertheless of such storied musical pedigree that precedes them. 

Director James MacDonald with Ms. Power has put together some excellent footwork in the characters' blocking and choreography. Similarities with certain Les Miserables show-stopping numbers was particularly effective in Act I's closer, "The Littlest Soldier", where the women decide to go public "wearing the balls of men".

As before, the cast were all well-coached to project their expressions full throttle and be wholly demonstrative in their cavorts about the stage by choreographer Power. The moody pub basement set (Cory Sincennes, designer) with its distressed furniture and matching Jacobean outfits (Barbara Clayden, costume designer) joined company with a swack of toga-like sequences with cloths flung about like angelic shrouds -- "Hell in disguise" Isabel (Tracey Power) proclaims. All of it visually rich and lit with subtlety and nuance (Itai Erdal, lighting designer).

Acting pin-spots : As Judith, Meaghan Chenosky was the only newbie in this year's remount. While a bit timid in the opening scenes, she grew considerably more forceful on the night. Her arguments with Dad (Susinn McFarlen en masque) were vivid and compelling. Caroline Cave as Susannah once again turned in a brava! performance that grasped fully the nuances demanded by the times. How to remain faithful to sister Judith while respectful of her doctor husband's career and her young family's public reputation. 

Susinn McFarlen reprised her narrator's role along with the Dad Bill bits. Her resonant rounded pitch of voice brought to the Firehall the same energy and connectivity she wowed the crowd with at Performance Works in 2015. 

Medina Hahn's soliloquy lament for each of her dead 15 children -- who she named and imagined real-life roles for -- was utterly touching. Pippa Mackie perfectly named for her peppery part, while Erin Moon as Margaret was touching. Ms. Power also perfectly named for her feisty Isabel : she would be one "littlest soldier" I'd not want to joust with.

Who gonna like : My wife summed it up succinctly and precisely. "Anyone who loves theatre will love this show," she announced during our ride back to Tsawwassen. Yes. And, timing being important, Miss Shakespeare is the perfect aperitif and reassuring nightcap to the USA polling booth events of yesterday. The chance for the country to at long last elect its first woman President fell prey to a quirky time-worn institution called the Electoral College. Despite the fact that Ms. Clinton had 200,000 more ballots cast in her favour than her opponent managed. This is clever playwriting. Clever songwriting. Clever play-within-a-play-within-a-play house of mirrors stuff. Tuneful, joyful, inspiring. Can't ask for much more than that anywhere anytime.

Particulars : Produced by Musical TheatreWorks in association with the Firehall Arts Centre. Book & Lyrics by Tracey Power.  Music by Power and Steve Charles.  Performances November 5-26. Tickets and schedule through Firehall Arts Centre  Run-time 120 minutes including intermission.

Production crew : James MacDonald (Director).  Steve Charles (Musical Director / Sound Designer). Tracey Power (Choreographer).  Anna Kuman (Assistant Choreographer).  Barbara Clayden (Costume Designer).  Cory Sincennes (Set Designer). Itai Erdal (Lighting Designer).  Peter Jotkus (Stage Management).  Tanya Schwaerzle (Apprentice Stage Manager). 

Musicians : Anne Duranceau (String bass).  Bonnie Northgraves (Piano).

Peformers : Caroline Cave.  Meaghan Chenosky.  Medina Hahn.  Pippa Mackie.  Susinn McFarlen.  Erin Moon.  Tracey Power. 

Addendum #1 : In 2016 Miss Shakespeare garnered the Jessie Richardson Theatre Award for Outstanding Production. In the Playwright's Notes for that show Power noted : "...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 civision of men and women in the arts...In the 400 years (since WS's death) is 30% enough?" she asked.

With thanks anew to Marsha Lederman for her May 2, 2015 Globe & Mail piece "Women, long underrepresented in the [live theatre] industry, are pushing back", the following metrics are telling. 

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. They also consume some 60% of seats at professional theatre festivals like Vancouver's 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. 

Addendum #2 :  In The Firehall program for the current run, Ms. Power elaborates : "It's a strange realization when you find yourself talking about your characters like they're your close friends. This past summer I travelled to Stratford Upon Avon, but unlike the thousands of other tourists, I was there to see where Judith Shakespeare lived, not her father.  To stand in front of what was once The Cage Tavern, and imagine all I had written, taking place in there. It was incredible. Over the past eight years Miss Shakespeare has grown from a notebook of strange ideas into a story about seven women whose strengths I admire, and whose passion inspires me every day. I could not imagine living in a world where I was not allowed to create, it's a part of who I am, and my wild imagination, although ridiculous at times, has always been encouraged by my family and friends. To think only 400 years ago, this wouldn't have been the case."

Addendum #3 :  The Judith Shakespeare imagined by Tracey Power in what she termed her "saucy new musical" last year bears no known actual, factual resemblance to William Shakespeare's younger daughter Judith who was 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 the local pub in fact called -- but also symbolically -- The Cage.

A couple of months before WS'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 along with the baby had died in childbrith. Outraged and humiliated, on his deathbed WS cut Quiney out of his will. The coincidental juxtaposition in Miss Shakespeare between the characters Judith and Margaret was not borne of historical fact, just some clever dramatic creativity by Ms. Power to inject additional spice and irony into her script.

Subsequently the real-life Thomas Quiney 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 teens. 


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