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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Beverly Creasey


Muddy Waters

Reviewed by Beverly Creasey

The esteemed author/critic/playwright Robert Brustein weighs in (or rather, wades in) on the Shakespeare authorship question with his new extended one-act, THE ENGLISH CHANNEL (through Sept.15 at Suffolk University). Brustein loves puns of the groaner variety and THE ENGLISH CHANNEL is awash in them.

The actual channel of the title is Christopher Marlowe. Brustein’s wacky theory is that Shakespeare stole everything he could from the living Marlowe, then channeled the rest from the dead Marlowe, as an actual ‘ghost writer.’ What could have been a nifty spoof of the authorship controversy is so dense with period quotes and obfuscated evidence that it loses any hope of buoyancy.

As a serious treatise it only manages to muddy the waters. The four character play surely will confuse anyone unfamiliar with the 16th century name game. Brustein interchanges titles with Christian names in the who-wrote-Shakespeare debate (usually divided into the Stratford and Oxford camps) so if you don’t know that William Cecil is Lord Burleigh, for example, you’re up the creek, assuming that there are twice as many references as there really are.

It’s most peculiar that with all the allusions to Burleigh, Brustein doesn’t lay the groundwork. Most scholars agree that Burleigh was Shakespeare’s model for Polonius. The Burliegh house rules, which have survived over the centuries, begin with “Neither a borrower or a lender be…etc”. Even more peculiarly, Brustein names Southampton as Burleigh’s ward when it was the Earl of Oxford who grew up in his house.

Brustein acknowledges Shakespeare’s debt to Ovid and neglects to mention that the Earl of Oxford assisted his uncle in the first English translation. I presume that’s because Brustein is one of those Stratfordians who think the Stratford man was a “genius” who channeled Ovid and all that geography without leaving England.

Sean Dugan plays Marlowe way, way over the top and he’s contrasted by Gabriel Field, playing Shakespeare way, way under the radar. The newly renovated theater at Suffolk still has acoustic problems (at least under the balcony overhang) because I had difficulty hearing the soft spoken Southampton, played like a nervous schoolgirl by Alex Pollock.

Meritt Janson plays the feminist Dark Lady like a duelist who can’t stop challenging everyone to the death. The result of Wesley Savick’s mercurial direction is that each actor seems to be toiling in a different play. Never mind that they’re all speaking American English—which I was willing to accept completely until the character of Shakespeare makes it an issue by calling it to our attention. He comments that the Dark Lady has no Italian accent despite her ancestry. She might well have shot back that he lacked an English accent, since they’re at each others throats for most of the play.

Zounds! Even interjecting Woody Allen (“Did Jew?”) can’t help this muddle. “Much ado…”, as what’s his name famously said.

"The English Channel" (6 - 15 September)
SUFFOLK UNIVERSITY THEATRE
@ C. Walsh Theatre, Suffolk University, 55 Temple Street, BOSTON MA
1 (866)811-4111

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide

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