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A CurtainUp Review
The Tragedy of Arthur

I direct that my son, Arthur Michael Phillips, serve as my literary executor, and further direct that he see to the publication and promotion of the play The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain, by William Shakespeare. .— Lawyer, reading an excerpt from the Will of Arthur Phillips' late father.
Tragedy of Arthur Jacques Roy and Madeleine Maby (Photo Credit: Jacob J. Goldberg)

Arthur Phillips' best-selling novel The Tragedy of Arthur has gone from the page to the stage at Off Broadway's TBG Theatre. It's directed by Jordan Reeves, and adapted by Phillips from his faux memoir that focuses on a long-lost Shakespeare play that surfaced in his own mythological backyard.

While fans of the book, this critic included, will want a chance to see Phillips' work take on stage legs, this Guerilla Shakespeare Project production disappoints. It only skates over the surface of the popular novel and misses much of its psychological depths.

Before going into details about the current production, a few words of praise for the novel, Phillips'fifth. The novelist deservedly earned literary kudos for this remarkable work, as well as Prague, The Egyptologist, Angelica, and The Song is You. As a five-time Jeopardy champion, Phillips is well-known for his incredible command of facts, cultural trivia, and his smart leaps of imagination. In Arthur, he brilliantly channels all these talents, with a broad wink and a nod to the Bard.

Arthur has an ingenious premise: An entire five-act "lost" play of Shakespeare, discovered by Arthur's late father. Upon his death in prison, he bequeathes the script to his son. Although Arthur's twin sister, an aspiring actress, immediately points out that she, and not Arthur, should be the rightful heir to this lost Shakespeare play, she inevitably yields to the legalities of the will.

The rub, however, is not who's the rightful heir but whether this play, the Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain, written in 1597 (a year after Love's Labour's Lost, is the real McCoy. After all, Arthur's larger-than-life father had a long shady past with convictions for forgery of grocery coupons, leading to incarceration.

Arthur, struggling with these painful family memories, naturaly ponders the obvious: Is Shakespeare's lost play, now in his possession, simply another one of their father's fabrications? Could it be his last hurrah as a con artist? Or is it really the Man-of-Avon's undiscovered work?

Phillips's novel erased the lines between fact and fiction. He offers us a profound reflection on the meaning of family, personal identity, ambition, deception, and our literary legacy.

Unfortunately, the stage version is only a shadow of the novel. It fails to coalesce as a play for not one but several reasons. First, the book is a sprawling 368 pages starting with a long-winded introduction and ending with a complete five-act play. To whittle down its excellent literary timber to a manageable evening is a daunting task.

While the author no doubt worked meticulously on this adaptation, theater writing doesn't seem to be his cup of ink. In his novel, he salted and peppered each page with delicious facts about the Bard and his canon and tossed in a generous dash of irreverence. Despite retaining the broad outline of his novel missing key ingredients result in a spin-off with less complexity and Shakespearean flavor. Besides, not all literary novels, even the best ones, lend themselves to the stage.

Another reason for this lackluster production could be fiscal. Like other small companies, The Guerilla Shakespeare Project is probably operating on a modest financial budget which probably compromised this production.

Whatever flaws the adaptation and staging has, the acting ensemble make a decent showing here. Jacques Roy, as the frustrated stand-in for the author intelligently balances his complex character with arrogance, cynicism, and filial devotion.

Sarah Hankins, as Arthur's sister Dana, possesses plenty of spunk and conveys the passionate nature of an aspiring actress. Hankins becomes more than a foil to the protagonist but acts as a catalyst to the action here, enabling Arthur to come to terms with their family's complicated past and to accept his doubts about the text of The Tragedy of Arthur.

As the father, Eric Emil's Oleson projects both a touching humility and a warm humanity. There are other fine efforts from Madeline Maby as Arthur's wife, Geordie Broadwater's Agent, Jordan Kaplan's Lawyer, and Tom Schwans' Professor.

Director Reeves does his best to keep the story line on track but the pace is too often lethargics. Lynne Porter's multi-level set has a raffish look but it is too cluttered in its effort to visually index some of Phillips' real-life literary career with posters of his past books (most conspicuously The Egyptologist). Melissa Mizell's lighting is at its best when Arthur's late Father sporadically materializes on stage, much like the Ghost in Hamlet. Lea Reeves' costumes are, if not particularly memorable, true-to-life.

In spite of its shortcomings, The Guerilla Shakespeare Project deserves a credit for attempting to give it dramatic life. Hopefully it will serve to whet the appetites of theatergoers unfamiliar with the book to gread it.

Editor's Note: Like Deirdre I loved The Tragedy of Arthur, the novel, and was disappointed not to be able to go with her to see this production. I was even more disappointed that it wasn't as exciting as we both hoped it would be. I don't review as many books as I'd like, but I did feel this was a must for anyone looking for a splendid novel with a strong link to the theater. For a link to that review. click here . Add link to my book review
The Tragedy of Arthur
Based on Arthur Phillips' novel of the same title and adapted to the stage by Phillips
Directed by Jordan Reeves
Cast: Geordie Broadwater (Agent), Sarah Hankins (Dana), Jordan Kaplan (Lawyer), Madeline Maby (Wife), Eric Emil Oleson (Father), Jacques Roy (Arthur), Tom Schwans (Professor).
Sets: Lynne Porter
Costumes: Lea Reeves
Sound: David Are & Dana Haynes
Lighting: Melissa Mizell
Stage Manager: Darryl Lee VanOudenhove
The TBG Theatre at 312 W. 36th Street. Tickets: $18.
From 3/22/13; opening 3/24/13; closing 4/07/13.
Wednesdays and Thursdays @ 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays @ 8pm, and Saturdays and Sundays @ 2pm.
Running time: approximately 2 hours; 40 minutes with 10 minute intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 3/22/13
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