By David Stallings; Directed by Antonio Miniño
Produced by MTWorks
Jason Emanuel and Cotton Wright in The Family Shakespeare. Photo by Antonio Minino.
BOTTOM LINE: The Family Shakespeare raises key questions around the timely issue of censorship. These larger questions, along with a gifted cast, make for a compelling production.
In the 18th century, the original works of Shakespeare were rewritten for the stage, spawning multiple new versions of the Bard's classics. Many of these were revised to censor scenes and plot elements that were deemed too shocking for audiences during this time. (Hamlet's Ophelia, for example, dies from tripping and taking a nasty fall, rather than from drowning herself.)
Among the well known revisionists was the Bowdler family. MTWorks' new production, The Family Shakespeare, focuses on the Bowdler family, exploring the changes they go through after their father's death. Despite being based around true events and real historical figures, playwright David Stallings takes liberties in his script, adding conflicts that may not be factually accurate in order to make a larger statement about censorship's inherent problems. At the center of the story is Henrietta Bowdler (Cotton Wright), who is lost without the guidance of her father, still clinging to the world of make believe he bequeathed to her through his love for the worlds within Shakespeare's plays.
Much like the plays her father revised, Henrietta's life is sheltered as she has been kept sequestered from the real world. Despite being grown she behaves much like a child, throwing herself into consuming games of make believe that blur the line between reality and fantasy. Locked in the Bowdler estate, removed from most normal social interaction, she finds solace in prolonged games of make believe with Fen (Frankie Seratch), an illegitimate child her brother fathered with a maid. During the course of her childhood, Henrietta played her elaborate games with her brother Thomas (Jason Emanuel) who has now grown up and left the estate creating a life independent from his family as a doctor. Thomas rarely visits, which causes much pain for her as she believes they have a mystical bond and that he wished her into existence. Henrietta goes into hiding to prompt a visit from her beloved brother, but once back in the estate he refuses to reignite the once intense and somewhat sexual bond between them. Henrietta's love for fantasy is further called into question when a game of make believe based around The Tempest leads to her young playmate leaping out a window, as he becomes so enmeshed in the world of fantasy that he believes he can actually fly. This prompts Henrietta's sister, Joan Bowdler (Corey Tazmania), to remove all whimsical objects from the family home including their father's plays. Through this conflict the family's dark secrets began to slip out, and we are shown the harm Henrietta's perpetual childhood has done to her. The story becomes an allegory for the harm censorship can cause, in general.
Cotton Wright is wonderful in her portayal of Henrietta, convincingly embodying a woman who is both intelligent and articulate yet also naive and childlike. The rest of the cast is skilled and convincing enough to evoke the late 18th century. The intricate, visually dazzling costumes by Rachel Dozier-Ezell add great beauty and authenticity, and often times resemble creations that would wow even on modern catwalks.
Both the play's thesis as well as the historical figures at its center seem highly relevant in this day and age (especially with recent news that Huckleberry Finn is being reissued in a revised, more politically correct form). With this production, I would have benefitted from a bit of background information or context, perhaps even a program note with a bit more historical explanation about the history of the Bowdlers, as their story is not common knowledge and the characters themselves are not clearly laid out. Nonetheless, The Family Shakespeare raises relevant questions about the problem with censorship and how much children should be protected. Even with her sheltered life, Henrietta seems worse off in the end, than if she had known the true brutal realities of the world -- both within the works her father revised and in the world outside the doors of her family estate.
(The Family Shakespeare plays at the June Havoc Theater, 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, through April 30, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7PM, Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM. Tickets are $18 and are available at MTWorks.org or by calling 212.352.3101.)