New York City Theater
"The English Channel"
Abingdon Theatre, Manhattan
“Brilliant,” “bawdy,” “erudite,” “hilarious” are the words which come to mind, in watching Robert Brustein’s play “The English Channel,” now enjoying its New York premiere at the off-Broadway Abingdon Theatre.
It is not surprising that Brustein would turn scholarly research on its ear to make Shakespeare’s life and times immediate and exciting. Despite his eminence in the world of theater, Brustein has not lost touch with the human element, perhaps coming out of his own Eastern European Jewish background. The Brusteins were once immigrant Polish Jews who struggled to survive on the teeming lower east side of New York. Brustein himself, two generations later, would move on to Amherst College, Columbia University, and the theater world beyond.
As scholar/director/educator/critic Brustein has been turning the theater world in new directions for a long time. He founded both the Yale Repertory Theatre (at Yale) and the American Repertory Theatre (at Harvard), served as Dean of the Yale School of Drama and drama critic of The New Republic, all the while pouring out books, critiques and essays which offer new visions of theater.
But Brustein as a playwright? This is news indeed for some of us, to discover that he is also a playwright, and a playwright of the first rank.
“The English Channel” has the good fortune to be playing in a small, intimate theater, where the viewer practically sits in the actors’ laps—developing a personal relationship with Will Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe, the Earl of Southhampton, and Emilia (the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets). With sprightly direction from Daniela Varon, all four performers—Stafford Clark-Price, Brian Robert Burns, Sean Dugan, and Lori Gardner—are at the top of their form. Particularly admirable is Gardner, who jumped in at the eleventh hour to replace Rosal Colon. (Gardner had not yet learned all her lines and worked partly from the book, adding to the spontaneity of the show.)
Much of Shakespeare’s own famous lines from plays and poems are cleverly interwoven in the dialogue, giving the audience a delightful jolt. Scholarship joins hands with wit and creativity. Desdemona’s handkerchief, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the star-crossed lovers all haunt the Brustein tale.
Moreover, sex and poetry are never far from the four characters’ thoughts, as the story unfolds. It is 1593, the year of Elizabethan England’s plague, and it all transpires in the famed Mermaid Tavern. Shakespeare is often seated at his desk, attempting poems, but this worthy effort is interrupted when Emilia is offered up as bait. Soon they are wrapped in each other’s arms. It seems she has long been an admirer of the playwright, having seen his “Titus Andronicus,” and she is something of a writer herself. She is also a court musician and daughter of a Venetian Jew.
Brustein turns Will Shakespeare into a kind of tabula rasa, on which his colleagues’ thoughts, themes and words are stamped. He is constantly running to his desk, writing down a bon mot delivered by someone else. Basically, Brustein’s theme is to question the source of Shakespeare’s plays. Who, in fact, wrote those plays? Was it Will or his pal Marlowe or the educated Earl of Southhampton or the dark lady herself?
No matter. What matters is that Brustein has written a witty, provocative, scholarly piece, well worth a visit to the Abingdon Theatre.
Sept. 23, 2008