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A CurtainUp Review
Thiessen's purpose is obviously to present Hathaway as a liberated woman in Elizabethan England who was the defiant wife of Shakespeare and mother of his three children. The play begins on the afternoon of Shakespeare's funeral. Shakespeare's sister Joan insists that she read Shakespeare's will. But Hathaway realizes that before she does she must retread her nonconventional life.
Early on, the play is delightful when it reveals Hathaway's old-fashioned sweetness when Shakespeare was courting her in Stratford. Kowalchuk as Hathaway beautifully gets inside her character and brings alive how she fell in love with the young Shakespeare and decided to marry him.
You watch Kowalchuk time-travel back to Hathaway's first meeting with the young Shakespeare. She was 26, 8 years older than her future husband, when they supposedly met at a Stratford Fair. But what comes across here is the girlish charm, relish for life, and her passionate love for Shakespeare. Hathaway wants to know what makes the young Shakespeare tick. As he watches him fastidiously studying the players performing their drama at the fair, it seems to her that he is imprinting it on his mind's eye and dissecting all its theatrical parts. Ironically, her first impression of Shakespeare is that he's a "man of few words."
The following scenes flow equally well. In this world, as in real-life, Hathaway becomes pregnant by Shakespeare during their courtship. Interestingly, it's not treated here as a "shotgun" wedding but more as an embarrassment for her family. Hathaway's father (unseen) is continually represented as a protective father who's extremely anxious about his daughter's impending marriage to Shakespeare. Not only is he distressed about the news of her premarital pregnancy, but he pointed out to her that Shakespeare's father was the "worst mayor" that Stratford ever had. Of course, his independent-minded daughter doesn't listen to him, and Shakespeare and Hathaway soon wed.
Where Thiessen errs is in blending a feminist portrait of Hathaway with the hard-boiled historical facts known about her and her celebrated husband. At times it gives you the feeling that you are watching two plays concurrently. The first one portrays Hathaway as the liberated woman, an Elizabethan precursor to Gloria Steinhem. The second one as a woman who's gradually finding herself becoming a victim of a loveless marriage, her husband mostly away in London while she cares for their three children, Susanna, and the twins Judith and Hamnet.
Shakespeare's Will doesn't paint an entirely sympathetic portrait of Hathaway. When her husband relocates to London to pursue his theater career, she suspects him of sexual infidelity, and, perhaps in spite, has intimate affairs with other men in Stratford. The play, written entirely in verse, doesn't describe these extramarital affairs except in the broadest terms. But one comes away feeling that Hathaway was no Penelope.
Thiessen has relied mainly on the surviving gossip of the day about Hathaway, coupled with his own vivid imagination. But even though he claims poetic license, it's still difficult to swallow everything he spins on Shakespeare. Case in point: In his world, Shakespeare is described as a Catholic, which is glaringly presumptuous on Thiessen's part. While it's speculated that Shakespeare's father was a recusant after Elizabeth's accession, Shakespeare's own religious affiliation has never been pinned down with any certainty.
Shakespeare's sister Joan (also unseen) is also vilified in this play. You get the sense that Shakespeare's only surviving sibling in 1616 (Shakespeare's mother gave birth to 8 children) was a meddler in the Shakespeares' marriage. It also seems that Joan enjoyed basking in the limelight of her brother's theater success but reserved only contempt for his wife.
That said, Joan is theatrically necessary here. For she is the one who pointedly reminds her reluctant sister-in-law that Shakespeare's will must be read now that her brother's funeral is over. Of course, Shakespeare buffs already know what's in the Bard's will. But who doesn't want to learn how his wife reacts when she learns that her late husband of 34 years has only bequeathed her his "second-best bed with the furniture"?
What emerges is a solo show that gives you a modern, and generous-minded, perspective on Anne Hathaway. The music that punctuates the play and is performed by Rima Fand, adds traditional English song and original musical compositions to the piece. As directed by Mimi McGurl, Shakespeare's Will isn't altogether a persuasive portrait of Hathaway. But it does give a voice to the Bard's often forgotten wife.
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Shakespeare's Will by Vern Thiessen
Directed by Mimi McGurl
Cast: Tannis Kowalchuk (Anne Hathaway)
Costumes: Karen Flood
Music: Kurt Knuth and Rima Fand, performed by Rima Fand
Lighting: Rachael Saltzman
HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue. Tickets: $25. (212) 352.3101 or online at www.here.org
From 3/14/18; opening 3/21/18; closing 4/1/18.
Tuesday through Saturday @ 7pm; Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday matinees @ 2pm.
Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 3/15/18
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