note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Robert Brustein has cleverly combined history and vivid imagination in his trilogy about Shakespeare’s life and works. The first play, “The English Channel,” which focused on Shakespeare’s affair with Emilia Lanier, landed Brustein a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2009.
Appearing through Oct. 2, the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University and Boston Playwright’s Theatre’s world premiere of the second installment, “Mortal Terror,” focuses on Shakespeare’s commission by King James to write the bard’s masterpiece, “MacBeth” and his friendship with writers Ben Jonson, the irreverent John Marston, and the revered Sir John Harington. There’s an implied flirtation between Shakespeare and unhappy extravagant spender, Queen Anne, her affair with wealthy Catholic, Robert Catesby, (portrayed defiantly by Christopher James Webb) and Catesby’s infamous involvement with the foiled Gunpowder plot of 1605.
Recipient of the 2010 National Medal of Arts, Brustein is the prolific author of many books about the theater and Shakespeare. He currently is founding director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, where he served for 20 years as director of the Loeb Drama Center.
The brilliant Brustein leaves no stone unturned in this one-act, 1 hour-50 minute play, which boasts a superb all-Equity cast, directed by talented Daniela Varon.
Stafford Clarke-Price as Shakespeare, is a wide-eyed, young writer whose career is rising rapidly. He becomes caught between maintaining his literary integrity and gaining the mad King James I’s favor by writing a play that will ensure the Scottish Protestant king’s right of succession to the throne. The debauched James, son of Mary Queen of Scots, (brilliantly portrayed by Michael Hammond) has a few obsessions --- especially with demons and witches --- that he insists Shakespeare incorporate in his play. Hammond regally struts and frets his hour upon the stage, a ranting alcoholic.
Brustein cleverly weaves into the theme characters, plots, and legendary lines and quotes from “MacBeth” and some of the Bard’s other works.
John Kuntz adds bawdy humor and dramatic touches in his dual roles as the infamous Marston and equally infamous anti-throne co-conspirator, Guy Fawkes, while dignified Dafydd ap Rees is outstanding as Sir John Harington, who is also anti-King James, but for different reasons.
Beautiful, talented Georgia Lyman glitters as conflicted Queen Anne, who loves plays but is largely ignored by James, whom she accuses of being bisexual. However, Jeremiah Kissel as Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s literary friend and admirer, is the core around whom the others satellite. His expert sense of timing and deft delivery is marvelous.
So are Rachel Padula Shufelt’s resplendent, elegant period costumes, Frank Meissner’s lighting, and Jon Savage’s sets, which costumed stagehands swiftly convert from Shakespeare’s one-room London flat to the king’s palace and a lowly pub.
You needn’t be a Shakespeare buff to enjoy “Mortal Terror”. You don’t even have to endure Shakespeare’s vintage language, save an occasional “anon” at the pub. This play is delightful for Everyman - a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying much more than nothing.
A special panel discussion with Brustein, Oskar Eustis of New York Public Theater and Jenny Gersten of Williamstown Theatre Festival, Steve Maler of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Allyn Burrows of Actors’ Shakespeare Project precedes the Sept. 23rd performance at 6 p.m., which is free for play ticketholders or $10 for the discussion only. Visit www.moderntheatre.com.
BOX INFO: One-act play presented by the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University and Boston Playwright’s Theatre appearing through Oct. 2 at 525 Washington St., Boston. Performances are Sept. 22, 29, at 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 23, 30, at 8 p.m.; Sept. 24, Oct. 1, at 4,8 p.m.; Sept. 25, Oct. 2, at 2 p.m. Tickets, $40; seniors, $25; students with valid IDs, $10. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.bostonplaywrights.org.