By Vern Thiessen; Directed by Mimi McGurl
Produced by NACL Theatre
Off Off Broadway, Solo Show
Runs through 4.1.18
HERE Arts Center,145 6th Avenue
by Sarah Weber on 4.1.18
Tannis Kowalchuk in Shakespeare's Will. Photo by Emily Hewitt.
BOTTOM LINE: A solo play about the life of William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway.
As little as we know about William Shakespeare, we know even less about his wife, Anne Hathaway. We do know that she was eight years Shakespeare’s senior, that she was pregnant when they married, and that his will left her with only his “second best bed with the furniture.” The rest is up to one’s imagination, and Vern Thiessen certainly takes liberties in his play Shakespeare’s Will.
Thiessen’s Hathaway, brought to life in this production by Tannis Kowalchuk, is sharp witted and unapologetically bold. She’s a feminist, ahead of her time, if you will. We first meet her as she returns home from Shakespeare’s funeral with a scroll tucked under her arm. “I long for the sea,” she exclaims after removing her mourning veil. After some further poetry about the sea, she looks to a portrait of Shakespeare and admits, “The sea was a far better lover than you, Bill.”
Hathaway also recounts the funeral itself, particularly the behavior of Shakespeare’s nosy sister Joan. We learn that the scroll is Shakespeare’s last will and testament, and that Joan handed Anne the scroll along with a strange warning: “He never forgot.” Refusing to read the scroll, Hathaway instead chooses to distract herself with memories of the past, recounting the life she led as William’s wife. She starts with how they met at the town fair, moving on to their wedding night when they promised each other “to live our own lives” but still take care of each other. As her story unfolds, we see the various ways they kept and broke that vow.
Guided by director Mimi McGurl, Kowalchuk plays various additional characters as well, including Hathaway’s father, her children, her sister-in-law Joan, and Shakespeare himself. She also performs songs throughout, though it’s unclear what purpose, if any, they serve in the story. Kowalchuk shows her considerable range as an actor, and commands our attention from beginning to end. Her reveal of how Hathaway and Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, drowned at sea is especially powerful.
Yet for all of Kowalchuk’s skill, very little can be done to mask the script’s inherit shortcomings. Despite Thiessen’s attempts to define motifs and character traits, he makes arbitrary choices that fly in the face of his own structure. Even the reasoning as to why Hathaway puts off reading the will is shaky at best. At no point before opening the scroll does she express any doubt that William would keep their vow, even in the event of his death. So what is she so afraid of? Kowalchuk’s performance is notable, but not even her best moments can fix a play that falls so frustratingly flat.
(Shakespeare's Will played at HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue, through April 1, 2018. The running time is 65 minutes. For more information visit here.org.)
Shakespeare's Will is by Vern Thiessen. Directed by Mimi McGurl. Lighting Design is by Rachael Saltzman. Music is by Kurn Knuth and Rima Fand. Costume Design is by Karen Flood.
The cast is Tannis Kowalchuk with musician Rima Fand.