Theatre Review: Shakespeare’s Sister

One of my readers noticed a similarity between a Shakespeare traveling group, The Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, whom she saw in her hinterland region some years ago and the Blackfriar Theatre ensemble of whom reviewed recently for their production of School for Scandal. Yes, these are related. The Express was a touring company started in 1988. In 1999, they rebranded as Shenandoah Shakespeare and settled in Stanton, VA.  In 2004, the Blackfriar Theatre opened, with resident company performing at the theatre and the touring company continuing its mission to perform at high schools, colleges, and communities which might not have stages. We moved within driving distance in 2003, appeasing our curiosity that inaugural season.

Since I started this blog six years ago, I have written about most of the productions which we have attended (I missed writing about Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra for getting bogged down in reading his source, Plutarch’s Lives, to find the parallels between the text and script…), of which you can read all 34 as a remedy for insomnia, under the tab for Blackfriar Theatre.

In 2005, they rebranded, again, to the American Shakespeare Center, and initiated their Renaissance Season. This is a three-month run, during which the cast produces three to five plays with little rehearsal time. In addition to featuring plays by Shakespeare, they revive plays, such as School for Sandal, which were influenced by Shakespeare, and exhume long forgotten plays from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Occasionally, they produce modern plays with Shakespeare connections or twists, such as Lion in Winter or Return to the Forbidden Planet. Now, they are forging new theatrical territory, commissioning plays for world premiers. Thus, Shakespeare’s Sister.

Emma Whipday conjured up this play, part suspense plot, part historic fiction, part feminist revisionist history. The humor is as dark as any of Shakespeare’s tales of the injustices of society, from Hamlet to Taming of the Shrew. The language is elegant prose, with many memorable lines. The themes are as relevant to history as they are to current events. The basic question is what would have happened if Shakespeare had a sister with literary aspirations.

In fact, Shakespeare had a sister, who married and lived quietly in the course of history in their home of Stratford-upon-Avon. In the play, Judith (Ginna Hoben), has taken to writing plays. Not only is a woman writing scoffed at, but her topic, the Biblical story of Ester, forbidden to be staged because of the Protestant-Catholic feuds of the 15th and 16th century. Hoben’s Judith is feisty, witty, and confrontational to her undoing.

The other women in the cast, Allison Glezner (Judith’s mother, and Joan Henslowe the daughter of the theatre owner and rival for Judith’s lover), Jessika Williams (Judith’s sister, and Dorothy Clayton, one of the brawling women of the brothel affiliated with the theatre), and Lauren Ballard (Judith’s nephew, and Lucy Morgan, the favorite prostitute of the patrons of the theatre), match Hoben’s energy, in a way that could carry off the play without the men, were society not structured such as they are forced into servitude.

Phillip Henslowe (David Anthony Lewis) wants his theatre filled with customers, but wants to avoid the scrutiny of the law. Edward Alleyn (Josh Innerst) wants his starring role, both on stage and in love, regardless if he is with his betrothed (Joan) or his desired (Judith). Augustine Phillips (Chris Johnson) wants his place among the players and the harlots, and a little change on the side from he Crown for providing information on what is going on behind the curtain. Richard Burbage (Benjamin Reed) wants his break to step into the starring role, as he usually plays smaller parts to Alleyn’s star role. But, he is the most faithful, both in belief and loyalty to Judith and the other women’s ability to assert themselves.

The story of lost dreams, especially for women, is old. The glass ceilings illuminate but elude. The justifications are the same: caring for family rather than career, deferring advancements, promoting men first, the wrong woman, the wrong time. It does not matter whether the character is Judith writing plays in 1600 or Hillary Clinton running for president in 2016. Regardless of skills the woman brings, the browbeating of the men ends their opportunities.

About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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8 Responses to Theatre Review: Shakespeare’s Sister

  1. Oh dear, Oscar…a wee bit on the grim side that last paragraph of yours…the plight of women. I keep hoping my granddaughter will be able to, finally, enjoy the fruits of many labours fought hard for by the many who preceded her. Great review!

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I was a bit taken a back by the dark tone of the play. A week passed between when we saw the play and when I wrote the review. I needed time to bring my thoughts together on how much of the play was basing the sexism in the historical context of a womans place in Elizabethean society, versus how much it reflects our current events. I believe that the reason 400 year old plays (aka Shakespeare, et al) resonate with us is because the themes are the same as today. More reviews are queuing up, as we attended two this weekend. Keep up the good work for your daugher, granddaughter, and all the flowers that will bud on your family tree in the future.

      • So right. 400 year old plays resonating with women’s rights today. I do believe there are many regardless of gender wishing we weren’t still looking in that same 400 year old mirror. Looking forward to many more of your reviews. R.

  2. Laurie Graves says:

    Sounds fascinating! If “Shakespeare’s Sister” ever comes to the hinterlands, you can be sure I will see it.

  3. You remind me of how little we know about the women behind/beside the famous men who have been revered through history and in the Bible too. One thing I liked about Paul’s ministry, as described in the NT, is that he identified women who played leadership/patron roles in the early church.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I did not address specifically, in the play that the character of Judith Shakespeare wrote a play about Ester. Writing/producing plays on Biblical themes was forbidden at that time (this is a plot issue in the play) because of the Protestant/Catholic conflicts of the time. Thus, the character’s attempt to promote women’s strength through Ester’s story become as reason to oppress her for defying Queen Elizabeth (not good to get on the Queen’s bad side).

      • Now, that’s interesting! I didn’t know that. Gee whiz – so much was forbidden. And why am I not getting your blog posts these days? I have to remember to go look for them, and my memory is full of holes….

      • hermitsdoor says:

        Hmmm. I don’t know how those blog subscriptions work. I noticed that you have been catching up on posts today. I actually do not subscribe to anyone’s posts (clutters up our e-mail too much). But, our internet page has lists of frequently viewed sites, which include most of the bloggers whom I check out regularly. The past two weeks have been scarce on time: long work days; folks in to visit; conference to attend; waiting for new wash machine to be delivered, then catching up on a dozen loads of laundry. Not too exciting to write about. I do have a half-dozen drafted posts waiting for thoughtful review, editing, and then posting over a couple of weeks.

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