In The Tragedy of King Arthur, now playing at TBG Theatre, Guerrilla Shakespeare Company and Arthur Phillips have achieved the unthinkable: premiering a newly unearthed work of Shakespeare. Well, sort of. Adapted by Phillips from his critically acclaimed novel (which disposes of the “King” in the title), this new play carries the same inventive, convention-breaking spirit of its source.
At play’s rise, we meet novelist Arthur Phillips, based on, if not quite our author, played vibrantly by Jacques Roy. Arthur’s life is in crisis. His wife has just packed her Samsonite and rolled out the door (don’t ask why), his recidivist forger father has just died, and, much to the chagrin of his Bard-loving twin sister, has bequeathed to him an ancient quarto of an unknown Shakespeare play, The Tragedy of King Arthur with instructions to have it published, and rake in the windfalls.
Arthur, who knows his father a bit too well to believe this isn’t another hoax, has his agent, his lawyer, and a Shakespeare scholar twisting his arm into saying “yes.” To put the matter to rest, cracks open the play for some clue of provenance or proof of fraud. And then, with a vivid blast of green light and sylvan sounds, we are transported to Gloucestershire and Arthur becomes his (or is it the other way around) namesake, on a boar hunt with the Duke.
From hereon we are “jumping o’er times.” Scenes from the “Shakespeare” are spliced together with scenes from Arthur and his sister, Dana’s, life as framing device. The parallels are reinforced by doubling: Dana, the superb Sarah Hankins, plays the impish malefactor Mordred, Prince of Picts who questions the bastard Arthur’s legitimacy-- just as she disputes his claim to the play in the will, Eric Emile Oleson as Arthur’s dad, plays the father figures, King Arthur’s lords and soldiers are his real-life retinue of representation (Jordan Kaplan, Tom Schwans, and Geordie Broadwater), while Arthur’s wife (Madeleine Maby) has turns as Play Arthur’s lovers. The story specifics are familiar. It’s Mallory or Camelot without a Lancelot or Merlin: Arthur’s contested rise from Yorkshire country boy to king and his eventual fall.
The play juxtaposes Arthur’s decision whether or not to publish and King Arthur’s mixed feelings on ruling—both complicated by their fathers, and there the parallel ends. In temperament, (though not so in the book) the two Arthurs don’t have much in common. King Arthur fits the mold of Prince Hal, immature and hasty, where Arthur Phillips is more or less like Hamlet, talking to his dead dad and constantly vacillating on his course. So, when Dana insists to Arthur the play’s “about you!” it strikes a bit of a false note. But, that’s only one of many, many well played.
The ensemble of seven, under the expert direction of Jordan Reeves, get to play from the peak of their classical range to the colloquial median--and they excel at both. They are costumed by Lea Reeves whose inventive design stands at the intersection of modernity and period, with hip, military style overcoats patched with Arthur’s dragon crest, liveries of torn, black tee shirts, and some timeless linen dresses for Guinherre and the shepherd girl. The wonderful scenic design by Lynn Porter is cluttered minimalism. Stepwise platforms buttressed by a half stone arch transform (with the vivid light and sound of lighting designer Melissa Mizell and sound designers Dana Hayes and David Are) from Dana’s apartment to a hill or battlements. The “Hoarders” worthy bric-a-brac-filled shelves and milk crates provide endless hiding places for anything from broadswords to costume pieces, facilitating the phenomenal staging and its leaps in time and space.
Finally, and for Phillips fans it should come as little surprise, the writing is quite good. The playwright has a golden ear for dialogue, is a virtuoso for structure, and is a sinfully good mimic of Shakespeare--and, when he’s not, the genius of his concept makes excuses—it was the work of a forger! That said, it’s not really Shakespeare-- although, the play does make a point of asking if the cult of authorship supersedes content, a bit of literary criticism to be considered--the verse is more opaque and less fluid.
Few shows are as well directed, acted, designed, constructed or ambitious, but, in the end that last one nags. This story is huge in its thematic heft: patrimony, legacy, and writing post-Shakespeare are all there under the auspices of a “Father” that looms large. With all this, the play feels bloated in moments. The show clocks in at nearly three-and-a half hours and by the time in mid-act two where Arthur announces Act III of the play-within-the play, you start to feel it. But, at least you get your money’s worth—and if you save a bit more, you can buy the novel in the lobby!