Three Sisters Theatre Company delighted me with their production of The Clean House at the Gladstone in February. They seem to have a knack for picking good female-centric plays by female playwrights, as they’ve returned to The Gladstone with Miss Shakespeare (book and lyrics by Tracey Power, music co-written with Steve Charles).
William Shakespeare had 3 children: Suzanna, and the twins Hamnet (who died at age 11) and Judith. The 2 daughters both married – Suzanna to a respectable doctor named John Hall, Judith to a tavern-keeper and ne’er do well named Thomas Quiney.
Power posits the (not particularly original) idea that Judith was a frustrated playwright who railed against the restrictions placed on women in Elizabethan England. Women were not allowed to perform on the stage, nor to write plays. Power’s script has Judith setting up a clandestine female acting company in the basement of The Cage tavern where she works. This is both illegal and dangerous. If the women were caught, they would be shamed in public. In a society where reputation was a person’s greatest treasure, the risk of scandal was enough to keep almost all women in line. The lack of opportunity for education further proscribed their options.
But Judith’s thesis is “Making theatre is like making a child. In order to be successful, you need more than a penis.”
We don’t see much evidence of Judith’s writing abilities or of what she wants to say as a playwright, but she is pretty good at recruiting her acting troupe – a feat duplicated by director Bronwyn Steinberg in casting the play. To begin with, there’s Judith herself, played with passion by Leah Cogan. Her 5-woman troupe of players is a varied lot. There’s Margaret, a virginal wife whose husband of 9 years has yet to consummate their union. She’s played convincingly by Laura Hall, with equal parts of frustration and innocence. Robin Guy plays Katherine, an earthy illiterate woman whose “weak womb” has resulted in 14 miscarriages. Her heart-rending song “Tumbling”, in which she imagines all of her miscarried babes as grown children and adults, is a dramatic high point of the play. Andrea Massoud is both tough and tender as the outcast orphan bastard, Hanna. And Tamara Freeman is outstandingly good as tomboyish Isabel, who aspires to be a soldier. Natalie Fraser rounds out the troupe as Susanna Shakespeare, Judith’s sensible conventional sister who, we discover, has a bit of the rebel in her.
There’s one more actor on stage, performing as a dramatic Chorus. The character’s name is Quiney, and she’s played by Rachel Eugster. It doesn’t take much to realize that Quiney is an older version of Judith. Eugster also gets to play a very juicy part: an apparition of the Bard himself. The verbal jousting between father and daughter is delicious. And Shakespeare’s entrances and exits are hilarious! These are some of the funniest scenes in the play.
…in a musical, the purpose of the plot is to tie the songs together. And what a delightful bunch of songs there are in Miss Shakespeare!
The plot has holes in it you could drive a horsecart through but, in a musical, the purpose of the plot is to tie the songs together. And what a delightful bunch of songs there are in Miss Shakespeare! In addition to Katherine’s touching “Tumbling” and bastard Hanna’s “Just a Name”, there’s Isabel’s fierce “The Littlest Soldier” and some hilarious, very dirty songs such as “Ass Song” (it’s not about a donkey, I assure you) and “Keep Your Pizzle in Your Pants”. And much more.
The enthusiastic opening night audience really enjoyed Miss Shakespeare. It’s another winner for Three Sisters.
Three Sisters Theatre Company’s production of Tracey Power’s Miss Shakespeare is playing at The Gladstone Theatre until June 2. The performance starts at 7:30pm and is approximately 130 minutes long, including one intermission. Information and tickets at available at online and at The Gladstone’s box office.