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A CurtainUp Review
Shakespeare's Sister

"She had a gift like her brother's for the tune of words."
— Excerpt from A Room of One's Own
With all the souped-up Shakespeare productions arriving in New York this season, here's one that brings real steaming soup to the boards, Irina Brook's Shakespeare's Sister. This mash-up of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Marguerite Duras' La Vie Materielle is a dream of a dinner party where five women unpack their minds and hearts as they prepare a communal meal with unmistakable joie de vivre.

Brook (Yes, she is the daughter of the famed director Peter Brook and actress Natasha Perry) marinates her play with passages and themes from Woolf and Duras' essays that explore the total female being. Whether it's the idea of patriarchy, the struggle for women's identity, or the right for women to take up the pen and write, Brook argues, much like the aforesaid authors, that women need to take stock, not only of their "physical space," but the "metaphorical" one that lies within.

Though this dinner party clocks in at just 60 minutes, there's a slow unhurried pace to it. Before the play proper begins, a video loop is projected on a makeshift cloth screen that shows a young girl arranging, and re-arranging Lilliputian furniture in a dollhouse. Her demeanor conveys the earnestness of an architect and the sensitivity of a poet. As this unnamed girl continues to design her dollhouse, recordings of French songs waft over the stage, with "Mon Amour, Mon Ami" sending the silkiest sounds into the air and then slowly fading out.

Next we see five women are in the kitchen, fussing with pots on the stove, peeling vegetables at the table, sweeping the floor, or quietly discussing the day's events. It looks like a Bruegel come to life, only with no men in the picture.

The title, by the way, is a nod to Woolf's classic essay in which she invented a fictive sister for the Bard — her name, Judith Shakespeare. One of the performers, reading verbatim from Woolf's text, tells how Judith was endowed with genius and a love for the theater. Unlike her celebrated brother, however, she was never allowed to attend the local grammar school where Latin,Virgil, and Homer were taught. When her father arranged a marriage in Stratford, the teen-aged Judith rebelled and headed to London to pursue an acting career. There she met with little success, and after becoming pregnant by a stage manager, committed suicide and was buried at "some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop."

While plaudits belong to Brook for her intelligent direction, the ensemble acting is hardly put in her shadow. There are some very nuanced performances from Nicole Ansari, Winsome Brown Joan Juliet Buck, Sadie Jemmett, and Yibin Li. Each brings something to the table here, both in the literal and metaphoric sense.

Like her Dad, Brook knows how to change up the tempo of a work and add in some feisty action. Some very sexy scene are tucked into the more sedate ones, which really raises the emotional temperature. No matter how you interpret the sudden morphing of the women on stage from starchy matrons to femme fatales, their spicy song-and-dance routine points up that they all have relished some salad days.

Arguably, the ideal audience for Shakespeare's Sister are women. But this is not a "sapphic" play aiming to outshine or outwit men. Brook, a former actor, is clearly coming into her own as a director (five-time Moliere Award Winner) with this little gem.

Shakespeare's Sister
Based on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Marguerite Duras' La Vie Materielle
Adapted and directed by Irina Brook

Cast: Nicole Ansari, Winsome Brown, Joan Juliet Buck, Sadie Jemmett, Yibin Li.
Sets: Noelle Ginefri
Songs: Sadie Jemmett
Lighting: Juan Merchan
La MaMa at The Ellen Stewart Theatre, 74A East 4th Street. Tickets: $25 (with ten $10 tickets available to every performance on a first-come, first-served basis). Phone 212/-475-7710 or online at, or in person at the box office.
Performances include September 20-21, 26-28 and October 3-5 at 7:30pm; and September 22, 29, and October 6 at 5pm. Official opening is September 23.
Running time: 60 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 9/22/13
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