Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Family Shakespeare

By Byrne Harrison

If you've ever tried to watch "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" or a similar made-for-cable show on a "family" network, then you will fully appreciate what Thomas Bowdler was trying to do when he rewrote Shakespeare's plays to make them more "acceptable."  No off-color jokes, no blasphemy (or even questioning of God and man's place in creation), no suicide for Ophelia - all of this was unacceptable to Thomas (and his father who first rewrote these plays for his children).

His idea of the perfect world was one that was pretty, inoffensive, and heavily censored.

It is no real surprise that the Bowdler family, as portrayed in David Stallings' The Family Shakespeare, is not nearly as pretty and neat as Bowdler himself  might have portrayed them.  Stallings' version of the Bowdler family shows them as damaged individuals.  Henrietta (Cotton Wright) is a fragile, child-like woman trapped in a world of fantasy.  Jane (Corey Tazmania) is bitter about her lot in life and her physical disabilities.  John (Eric C. Bailey) is promiscuous leaving a string of bastard children behind him.  And Thomas himself (Jason Emanuel) is conflicted about his desire to live away from his family and the close, and somewhat inappropriate bond he has with Henrietta.

The play centers around Henrietta and her discovery that the Shakespeare that she grew up with and that her brother will eventually publish, is not the Shakespeare that the rest of the world knows.  She becomes consumed by the "new" plays that she has discovered, and retreats further into her world of make-believe.  When her passion for storytelling leads an impressionable boy (Frankie Seratch) to leap from a window (thinking he, like The Tempest's Ariel, could fly), it forces a confrontation with Thomas and the rest of her family and makes her question all the things that she had simply accepted as given up until that point.

While not as fully explored, Stallings creates a nice counter-point to the Bowdler family with his inclusion of the servant class, especially new maid Dorcas (Alexandra Cohen-Spiegler) and her mother Mrs. Tinsley (Diánna Martin).  Though not blessed with the upbringing that the Bowdler's have, they are completely realistic about the way the world works.  While Thomas and his kin might want to hide what is unseemly, their servants acknowledge and profit by it.

The cast features some excellent performances, notably Cotton Wright's amazing work as the naive Henrietta and Corey Tazmania's powerful performance as Jane.  Eric C. Bailey does an extraordinary job as the genial, but predatory John.

Production values are strong, especially Rachel Dozier-Ezell's marvelous 18th Century costumes and Blair Mielnik's set.

There is quite a bit going for this production, however, it could use some tightening up.  Although director Antonio Miniño does a good job overall (I especially like how he handles fantasy scenes - those times when Henrietta's very active imagination brings her stories to life), there are times when the momentum of the performance flags, most notably in some of the weaker scenes in Stallings' script.

The Family Shakespeare is an interesting play, and the topics it raises, especially the insidious nature of censorship, are extremely timely.  Featuring strong performances and a thought-provoking script, MTWorks has created another production to be proud of.

And one final thought, if you are not in the habit of reading the program, make an exception this time.  David Stallings has written a marvelous note about the play which touches on his inspiration, the power of imagination and censorship, and "that moment where you put your art into the world and no longer have any control over it."  It's a nice piece of writing and a great complement to his play.

The Family Shakespeare
By David Stallings
Director: Antonio Miniño
Producer: Martha Goode
Set Designer: Blair Mielnik
Costume Designer: Rachel Dozier-Ezell
Lighting Designer: Dan Gallagher
Composer: Jessie Montgomery
Production Stage Manager: Carolynn Richer
Assistant Stage Manager: Jean Marie Hufford
Dialect Coach: David Malcolm Wells
Marketing Directors: Louise Flory, Russell Jordan, Robin Madel
Graphic Designer: Lindsay Moore
Press Representative: Katie Rosin, Kampfire PR
Producing Consultant: Michael Roderick, Small Pond Entertainment

Featuring: Eric C. Bailey (John Bowdler), Sarah Chaney (Beatrice), Alexandra Cohen-Spiegler (Dorcas), Jason Emanuel (Thomas Bowdler), Diánna Martin (Mrs. Tinsley), Frankie Seratch (Fen), Peter B. Schmitz (Marcus/Deacon Barlow), Corey Tazmania (Jane Bowdler), Cotton Wright (Henrietta Bowdler)

June Havoc Theatre
312 West 36 Street

April 13-30
Tuesdays-Thursdays 7 PM
Fridays-Saturdays 8 PM

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