The English Channel
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
September 17, 2008
Part moat, part trade route, The English Channel runs between the north of France, a nation known to have little enthusiasm for linguistic invasion, and England, home of William Shakespeare, whose linguistic innovation gave his native tongue a great deal more to say. Indeed, Shakespeare is credited as contributing more words to the English language—among them: "critic," "addiction," and "torture"—than any other individual person. He is also the most widely-produced playwright of all time. For some, this is a cause for awe and wonder; for others, among them certain living playwrights, the prevailing reactions to this fact are despair, fatigue, and a dispiriting sense of being "always the bardsmaid, never the Bard."
Thus it is with great pleasure that I recommend to you Robert Brustein's The English Channel, a refreshing new play about gently-used ideas. The secret's been out for awhile that most of Shakespeare's storylines had previously belonged to now much lesser-known (or less-popularly-cared-about) works of art. But Brustein shows us a compelling version of what this idea-pirate might actually have been like: Will, an early-mid-career poet-playwright, toiling away in a fever dream of creative fecundity, constantly consuming the eloquent observations of his friends and acquaintances the way a pregnant woman raids a refrigerator—anything to nourish and help form that beloved being inside.
It is 1593, the theaters are closed due to the Bubonic Plague and Will, obscure poet and author of (probably) only a few plays (the Henry VI cycle, Titus Andronicus and The Taming of the Shrew) is renting a room in the Mermaid Tavern. Most notable among his friends who regularly come-a-calling is Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, Will's contemporary and "better," whose great shadow looms large enough to keep young Shakespeare from needing anything higher than SPF-10 for the rest of his career. As Brustein's Will is endearingly parasitic, his Kit is drunk, bawdy, and boy-crazy, yet deep down something of a mensch. He seems amused and not in the least bit threatened by Will's frequent flights over to his writing desk to record his friend's particularly striking strings of words to subsequently fashion into some of his own best lines.
This blemish on the beatification of St. Shakespeare is a source of much humor, but it is Brustein's depiction of an artistic milieu so different from ours—without intellectual property and copyright infringement, where ideas are neither hoarded nor commodified—this affectionate look at how artistic relationships are sources of inspiration and challenge as well as intolerable jealousy and feelings of defeat, that makes this play so heartening. To put it another way, these playwrights seem more interested in their art than in their place in eternity.
Such a spirit of generosity is abundant in the Abingdon Theatre Company's production, warmly directed by Daniela Varon. Equally theatrical are Stafford Clark-Price and Sean Dugan, as the wide-eyed Will and the world-weary Kit; their performances are humble and deeply involving, tossing away their words, never attaching undue significance to their meaning. Two other characters figure prominently into the free-flowing plot: Emilia Lanier, the first Englishwoman to be considered a professional poet (and a prime suspect for Shakespeare's "Dark Lady"), and Henry "Hal" Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, a beautiful young patron of Shakespeare's and probable dedicatee of his sonnets. Lori Gardner stepped in as Emilia for the ailing Rosal Colon the night before I saw the show; aside from her striking blonde hair—a dramaturgical "problem" that was addressed in a curtain speech—Gardner's performance had such wit and confidence, I scarcely noticed the script in her hand. The performance of Hal is probably the toughest to calibrate in this very intimate space—Brian Robert Burns is understandably still finding the right balance of fussy foppishness and a youthful sense of gravity.
Mutinous bonds and lascivious bodies (not to mention STD's) are unwittingly shared as often as a catchy phrase or an ingenious plot point. These narrative goings-on are significant, but I've chosen not to focus on them here; they are at times surprising, but for me rather beside the point. The great achievement of The English Channel is not the smart and humorous historical speculation, but the humanizing of a now-revered genius who couldn't have been seen as farther from that for most, if not all, of his lifetime, and the suggestion of a world where artists desire inspiration over divination: preoccupied less with how they will one day be seen and more with what gorgeous vision they will see next.