First, a confession: In high school, my eyes glazed over as my English teacher droned on about the universality of Shakespeare and his literary genius. One playwright didn't seem to need so much lionizing. Too bad teenage me couldn't have seen Shakespeare's Will, an American Players Theatre production which opened Friday night at the indoor Touchstone Theatre.
This 2005 play by Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen approaches Shakespeare from a fresh and humanizing angle: through his wife, Anne Hathaway, on the day Shakespeare is buried. The one-woman, one-act play stars APT favorite Tracy Michelle Arnold and marks the directorial debut of Brenda DeVita, the company's associate artistic director.
Few facts are known about Hathaway's actual life, so Thiessen imagines the specifics of her personality and bond with Shakespeare. This Anne is sensuous, earthy, funny and intelligent. Arnold is well-suited to play her.
The play begins with Anne walking home from Shakespeare's funeral on a gloomy, rainy day. After returning to the house, takes off her outer garment and peels back the layers of her marriage as well. She recounts first meeting "Bill," a poor tutor, at a country fair. She was 26 and he 18. Attraction leads to lovemaking, pregnancy and a shotgun marriage. Anne gives birth to their daughter Susanna and then, two years later, twins Hamnet and Judith.
Anne and Bill privately vow to have their "own kind of marriage," one free of typical conventions. In Thiessen's telling of their story, Anne has many male lovers when Bill is away in London, pursuing his theater career. Meanwhile, Bill has liaisons with both sexes.
Though one-actor shows often seem static, this performance was pleasantly dynamic. Arnold is in near-constant motion, ranging around a simple yet flexible set composed of a bed, chair and table. A lanky build makes her a graceful mover.
Though Arnold is a strong actor, Thiessen's play has some flaws. Some might call it "Shakespeare light" for using made-up events in the absence of historical record. When Anne recounts conversations between herself and Bill, "I say" and "you say" become distracting and unnecessary; context and Arnold's voice make it clear which person is speaking. Furthermore, some of Thiessen's humor is predictable, such as a crack about a lover who has much between his legs but less between his ears.
On the positive side, Shakespeare's Will is refreshingly direct, as is its examination of marriage, motherhood and individual experience. Together with this summer's revival of In Acting Shakespeare -- James DeVita's tale of his unlikely path to classical acting, which opens next weekend at the Touchstone Theatre -- this play is an intriguing complement to the three Shakespeare productions on APT's main stage.