NOVEMBER 2021 | Volume 209
As local theatre companies begin returning to “normal,” presenting live shows with larger casts and 100% seating, the way is being led—as is often the case—by United Players. The west side’s semi-professional company is usually the first to open its season in September, and since the demise of the Playhouse a decade ago, it has filled some of the gap in highbrow classical and contemporary plays, often imported from Britain.
United Players’ production of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s West End drama Emilia, beautifully directed by Lois Anderson, boasts a cast of 17—all women—along with a sterling all-female production team. The play imagines the frustrated and somewhat stunted life of Shakespeare’s “dark lady of the sonnets” in an imaginative feminist presentation that somehow manages to make Emilia Bassano a triumphant figure even in her defeats.
Emilia herself is played by four strong actors: Marion Landers narrates, and Kiomi Pyke, Aurora Rain and Charmaine Sibanda each play the character in turn. At various points the four Emilias speak in chorus, a powerful amalgam of female strength. All the other characters—various women of the court as well as the men—are played by women. Among the key figures: the Countess who takes Emilia in hand and introduces her into polite society (Dana Schindel), Emilia’s lover and patron, Lord Carey (Piril Sesli), her useless, ridiculous husband, Alphonso (Addison Forster), and the dubious Shakespeare himself (Hayley Sullivan, in a beautiful performance). At times, the entire ensemble sings, and actors play percussion instruments, accompanying the marvelous one-woman onstage band, Glee Devereaux, playing Sierra Haynes’ original music.
“Dark lady” Emilia is an immigrant from an unspecified country, and her race contributes to her outsider status. It’s a relatively minor theme in the play, despite frequent reminders of the court’s Nativist sentiments, which obviously resonate for contemporary English audiences. Emilia’s primary ambition is to write poetry, but she must be “tamed.” She needs, she is told, to adapt to “young ladyhood”: “As I grow,” she realizes, “I must also shrink.” In a wonderful scene, she and some other young ladies are given “dance” lessons. The dance they learn is to flatter men, look feminine and helpless, so as to attract a husband.
Emilia is smart enough to realize that a husband would mean the end of her ambitions, so she hooks up with Lord Carey, who “keeps” her and allows her to write until she gets pregnant. Then she must be married off. But luckily, her foolish husband has little interest in her and she can still follow her dream. The childbirth scene is terrific.
She meets Shakespeare and inspires him, but is angry that she can’t get her poetry published or write a play. (When she suggests it, he laughs.) She has an affair with Shakespeare, has another child, tries to convince Shakespeare to use his privilege as a writer to make people understand the true potential of women. Be sensible, she is told. Sensible never changes anything, she replies. But in the end her rebelliousness can’t even prevent her own words from being stolen.This brief outline only scratches the surface of this rich, intelligent play. And the production values are impressive: the musical and choral work, Ali Watson’s choreography, and especially Cecilia Vadalà’s numerous costumes and set design of papers and books. Director Anderson treats the material and her corps of artists as if they were presenting at Bard on the Beach. Stirring, first-rate work from United Players.
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