Unlocking mystery of Shakespeare the man
The eternal paradox of Shakespeare - that his plays reveal so much about human life, while the records of his life reveal almost nothing of his own humanity - has spawned whole schools of thought. Conspiracy theories, creative reconstructions, essays and plays and films about the man and his work all spring from the same frustrated impulse: to know the elusive creator who seems to know us so well.
The latest captive of this yearning is Robert Brustein, the director, critic, playwright, and founder of the American Repertory Theatre. In his new play "The English Channel," the first production in Suffolk University's recently renovated C. Walsh Theatre, Brustein approaches the problem of creating a character named William Shakespeare as he imagines Shakespeare would have done it himself: by stealing.
"Poor poets borrow, great poets steal," as another of Brustein's characters, Christopher Marlowe, tells us in the prologue. Or rather it's the ghost of Marlowe, gory-eyed and bathed in red light, telling us that, shortly after he's demanded our attention by stealing a line from the ghost of Hamlet's father: "List, list! Oh, list!"
And list we do, for Brustein has a knack for weaving such appropriations into a generally amusing embroidery on a few Shakespearean incidents and themes. Sometimes, the contrast between the many lines lifted from Shakespeare and those crafted by Brustein himself, in an idiom somewhere between Elizabethan and modern English, only highlights the danger of following a master of blank verse. Even so, the heirs of Brustein's invention are rich enough to convey a diverting tale.
Set in 1593, "The English Channel" takes place in a room at the Mermaid Tavern, where, Brustein's Marlowe tells us, young Will is holed up writing sonnets while the theaters are closed by plague. We're soon embroiled in Will's entanglements with Henry "Hal" Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, frequently identified as the mysterious Fair Youth of Shakespeare's sonnets; with Emilia Lanier, a court musician and poet whom Brustein - following A.L. Rowse and other scholars - nominates for the role of the Dark Lady; and Marlowe himself, here seen as Shakespeare's rival for Southampton's patronage, go-between with the lovely Lanier, and anti-Catholic spy.
Readers who found their minds wandering through the thicket of references in that last paragraph would probably feel equally lost in "The English Channel." For those to whom the Authorship Question and the Essex Plot are familiar and beloved ground, however, Brustein has crafted an academic divertissement that, at its best moments, is also something more: a reflection on the interplay between art and life, and a glimpse into the mysterious process of turning people into characters - and vice versa.
Wesley Savick, a longtime Brustein protege who teaches at Suffolk (where Brustein is now a scholar in residence), directs smoothly, only occasionally underscoring the bardly bawdiness too broadly or allowing some heavy exposition to sink under its own weight. By the end of the intermissionless 90 minutes, it's a marvel how much ground we've covered.
And in good company. Sean Dugan gets the flashiest role and runs with it, giving full rein to Marlowe's wildness and despair. Merritt Janson makes a striking, passionate Emilia, and Alex Pollock invests Hal with a fussy arrogance that's funny and touching, except at a few over-the-top moments when he becomes Lord Carson Kressley.
As for Will Shakespeare, Gabriel Field plays him as Brustein has written him: quiet, earnest, and a little remote. "The English Channel" imagines Shakespeare as, quite literally, a channel, a conduit by which characters can enter the world. If that conceit leaves us wondering what such a man was "really" like, we're no more mystified than we are by the "real" Shakespeare - whoever we each imagine him to be.