There’s a memorable moment in the Three Sisters Theatre Company’s production of Miss Shakespeare when an outstanding Robin Guy transports us back to the early 17th Century with a song called Tumbling.
She’s playing a woman named Katherine Rose who has lost 14 of her children in infancy yet still yearns for them to be alive. She gives utterance to this fantasy in one of this show’s most poignant musical numbers. Guy captures the tearful sensibility of the song brilliantly, but she’s also adding layers to her character. There’s this terrible loss in Katherine’s life, but there’s also a sturdy resilience and enough rebelliousness to make it conceivable that she would join other female characters in agreeing to defy the structures of the day and act on stage at a time in history when the idea of a woman performer was unthinkable.
A number like Tumbling strikes one kind of chord—a sobering one—in Miss Shakespeare. But this is a show that navigates mood changes as slickly as a knife through butter. Hence we also have Leah Cogan— an ongoing delight in the role of William Shakespeare’s bright and determined daughter Judith—jauntily delivering a ditty called Ass Song. It’s prompted by the fact that she’s been watching a rehearsal of Macbeth and has been so taken by the actor portraying Lady Macbeth that she launches into this cheeky comic ode—not to his performance but to his posterior.
Watching this show at the Gladstone, you’re repeatedly impressed by the determination of the all-female cast to draw out the material’s best features—its seamless mood changes, its concern for character delineation, the moments of wit and satire and naughty comedy, its quietly persuasive feminist agenda.
Miss Shakespeare originated a few years ago on Canada’s West Coast. Its driving force is Tracey Power who wrote the book for this musical, as well as its clever and inventive lyrics, and also collaborated with composer Steve Charles on the score. It takes us back to a time when women were forbidden to act on stage, a fascinating period in theatrical history. It presents us with a situation in which Shakespeare’s daughter Judith, herself an aspiring playwright, is so driven by a need for self-expression and a theatre company of her own that she and her friends surreptitiously begin to explore the acting experience in the dingy basement of a tavern.
Eventually, they are driven to the perilous decision to perform in public, which in turn gives the show the chance to explore the now-strange gender-shifting terrain of theatrical performance in Shakespeare’s time. Show and production are therefore making their own edgy comment about the marginalization of women in the culture of the day but at its best Miss Shakespeare garnishes these concerns with satirical flourishes that are more good-humored than biting.
The spectacle of these women donning the clothing of men to play male roles only to contemplate the further challenge of playing men doing women’s roles—well if it starts seeming wackily surrealistic, so be it. And Tracey Power’s impish sense of humor, not to mention a deft touch with bawdry, serves the material well in numbers like Acting The Gentleman or—with its cautionary references to the male anatomy—Keep Your Pizzle In Your Pants.
Bouquets are in order for Vanessa Imeson’s excellent costumes. David Magladry’s distinctly minimalist design offers the opportunity for fluid narrative in performance—an opportunity somewhat squandered in Bronwyn Steinberg’s production. And pianist and musical director Wendy Berkelaar, with the backing of double bass player Rowena Paul, provides excellent musical support.
The songs themselves offer both variety, texture and emotional linkage to Power’s lyrics. There are some delicious cascading octaves, an affection for minor keys and adventurous rhythms. There are moments that make you think of Kurt Weill and the cabaret culture identified with the dying days of the Weimar Republic. Miss Shakespeare is a show full of surprises.
However, at the Gladstone, the members of the cast deserve the greatest credit for surviving a production in which the direction seems at best tentative. Leaving the theatre, you keep reflecting on the pleasures of the individual performances. Robin Guy, as always, is worth watching. Leah Cogan’s Judith Shakespeare exudes a quiet elegance in her desire to be accepted for what she really is. Tamara Freeman is an incandescent delight as Isabel Loxley, a bouncy imp ready to try anything in this enticing new world of make-believe. Andrea Massoud brings urgency to the role of Hanna Storley, a young woman almost denied membership in the club because of her bastardy. As Judith’s sister, Susannah, Natalie Fraser effectively brings a new dynamic to proceedings because she fears the consequences of what they are doing. Laura Hall is sensitive, fragile and emotionally wounded over the fact that she remains a virgin after marriage. And Rachel Eugster does impressive double duty not only as the story’s narrator but as the garrulous shade of William Shakespeare whose encouragement of Judith’s ambitions is—to say the least—questionable.
There are times when the production could show more momentum. One wishes, for example, that these women were having more fun in the scene when they pull the Pyramus And Thisbe lampoon out of a Midsummer Night’s Dream and try doing it themselves: it’s a case of potential not being realized, and that’s a pity given that the sequence can make a useful contribution to a stage piece preoccupied with the shifting, shimmering nature of identity. Evidence of a guiding directorial hand seems indistinct. But repeatedly the material is rescued by the individual performers. Bless them all.
Book and lyrics by Tracey Power
Music co-written with Steve Charles
Three Sisters Theatre Company
Directed by Bronwyn Steinberg
This article originally appeared in Capital Critics’ Circle on May 25, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.