— Production poster
This was Jerry's review of the original Firehall production in 2015.
Tracey Power’s Miss Shakespeare, with music by Steve Charles, is a clever and very promising premiere of a feminist musical that could be sensational with another draft or two. Imagining a subversive, illegal theatre troupe organized by Shakespeare’s younger daughter, the show and its all-female cast are funny, powerful and moving in fits and starts. The argument is compelling and some of the songs are terrific. But there are structural issues that need to be resolved, and the music’s dramatic quotient needs to be upped considerably.
The elderly narrator (Susinn McFarlen), who also doubles as old Shakespeare himself in his daughter’s mind, tells us at the beginning: “Here we believe that making theatre is like making a child: to be truly successful you need more than a penis.” That sentiment is front and centre throughout the show as Shakespeare’s daughter Judith (Amanda Lisman) organizes some of her friends into an underground theatre company, arguing in song that women need to live with passion: “Life – don’t piss it away.”
It’s actually illegal for women to appear on stage, and other than feisty little Isabel (Tracey Power), Judith’s friends are reluctant—especially conservative married sister Susanna (Caroline Cave). But Judith is determined. She insists that women can create, that women should have a voice. She’s also liberated. She herself has had an affair with an actor and sings to the others about what attracted her: “It was his ass – I fell in love with his ass.”
The other women have personal stories that add to the sense of gendered injustice: Margaret (Erin Moon), a virgin after nine years of marriage because her religious husband won’t have sex with her; Hannah (Pippa Mackie), a bastard daughter whose mother was prevented by the Church from keeping her; and Katherine (Medina Hahn), who has had 19 miscarriages and sings one of the show’s best songs, a Kurt Weill style tune in which she imagines the lives of her unborn children until the bitter refrain, “The truth comes tumbling down and smacks me in the face.”
The women rehearse (in a couple of funny scenes) and gradually get better, more confident and enthusiastic. Finally, Judith decides they must perform publicly—disguised as men. There’s a lot of funny stuff around that trope, especially regarding their attempts to simulate the male “pizzle.” They’ll put on a play that Judith has written about powerful mythic female Atalanta. The show builds towards a climactic crescendo but never quite gets there.
Structurally, what’s missing in the script is the sense of danger and external conflict. We’re told how dangerous it is for the women to act, and how difficult it is to be a woman. But because the only men we actually see are Shakespeare—who isn’t even real—and an innkeeper, who lets the women use his place to rehearse and is a good guy (played by a different actress in each scene), the conflicts are all abstract or internal.
Musically, Charles’ choral arrangements are excellent, but the music itself is pretty lightweight for the sentiments it carries, and with only two musicians (Charles on bass, Bonnie Northgraves in piano) it doesn’t have much sonic power. Singing in chorus, the women’s voices are lovely; but individually, none of them really has a knockout voice. The strong ideas in the show need to be supported by stronger music.
Director James MacDonald moves things along nicely on the bare stage, aided by Powers’ minimalist choreography. Barbara Clayden’s costumes make the thematic points they need to. Overall, the show has a low-budget look that works well enough in this current incarnation. But it would be nice to see a more fully developed mise en scène along with another draft of the script and a musically more muscular production.
Playing in rep with Powers’ J. Caesar, her all-female adaptation of Shakespeare himself, Miss Shakespeare is a very good show. It could be a great one.