The Family Shakespeare
nytheatre.com review by Alexandra Cremer
April 16, 2011
MTWorks' production of The Family Shakespeare, a new play by David Stallings, asks many interesting questions. When is censorship appropriate? What is the difference between protecting children from the harsh realities of life and smothering them? Especially in this day and age of iPhones, the internet, social networking, and a 24 hour news cycle.
The show takes place in late 18th century England during a time in history when Shakespeare’s plays were changed. There were productions in which Cordelia, Romeo, and Ophelia woke up and lived happily ever after.
The story centers around Henrietta Bowdler and her family. Henrietta lives with her parent-like older siblings, John and Jane. Henrietta is an Ophelia/Desdemona-esque creature who loves Shakespeare. But she is so sheltered that she is unaware of the fact that the Shakespeare she loves is more cleaned up then the network version of Goodfellas.
The turning point of the show happens when she tells a young boy the story of The Tempest. She becomes so impassioned with the story that she tells the young boy he can play Ariel. Ariel is a magic spirit who can do anything, even fly. The young boy believes her, jumps out the window and is injured. This is where the show gets interesting: How far do you take imagination? Why is the family so focused on sheltering Henrietta? Why is Jane Bowdler so Machiavellian? Why does John Bowdler have a fetish for Dorcas a youthful servant girl?
The downstairs cast is an interesting counterpoint to the Bowdlers' aristocracy. Henrietta lives in a world of pretty dresses and Shakespeare while Dorcas is pawned off by her mother to be a servant to John Bowdler. Dorcas is advised by a fellow servant woman to sleep her way to wealth, where Henrietta gets scolded for going into town and finding an authentic version of Shakespeare’s complete works. Dorcas lives in a world of reality and longs for imagination. Henrietta lives in a world of imagination and longs for reality.
On a lot of levels the show is about growing up and raising children. When do you protect them, when do you let them go? It’s a pleasure watching both Dorcas and Henrietta mature and change from child to woman. It’s a pleasure watching Henrietta finally learn how to stand up for herself, especially in the scene with her brother Thomas, when she explains to him that even farm boys who can’t read understand what castration means, so why should the brutal part of poetry be cut away? Everyone deserves poetry and art even if it is brutal. It’s equally joyful to watch Dorcas stand up to her scheming mother.
Part Shakespeare In Love, part Sam Shepard play in corsets, The Family Shakespeare is an interesting story. The actors gave solid performances. Eric C. Bailey has some of the show’s best laugh lines, Alexandra Cohen-Spiegler is a delightful Dorcas, and Cotton Wright is an engaging Henrietta. The costumes by Rachel Dozier-Ezell are beautiful, and the set by Blair Mielnik is quite creative in the small theatre space. The show’s director Antonio Minino has created some delightful staging sequences, and even though the show’s pacing is slow at times, it’s definitely worth seeing.
It’s nice to see a new play in period costumes about censorship, family and poetry. It’s infinitely better than staying home and watching reruns of the network-approved version of Sex and the City. It’s nice to leave a play thinking “would Hamlet be better if it had a happy ending?” Then again, would Bambi be the same if Bambi’s mother hadn’t died in the forest fire?