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.