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Theater Review: Emilia

Corinne Marsh
WMU Theatre
A scene from Emilia

Western Michigan University Theatre’s production of “Emilia” opened last weekend. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

British playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia is a speculative attempt to provide one possible answer for the unknown identity of “The Dark Lady” in Shakespeare’s sonnets.

The result is a witty, raucous and incendiary mock-historical romp with a decidedly feminist slant that for the most part holds its audience for the two and a half-hour performance. It focuses on the struggles of poet, Emilia Bassano, and her feisty women companions to carve out a place and find a voice in male-dominated Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

Playwright Malcolm makes several bold choices in her script, most of which are successful. First the title role is played by three women, in this case E.J. Taylor, Mikaela Johnson, and Jessica Krolick. Each does admirable work in representing Emilia, as a young girl training to be a lady, as a middle-aged woman seasoned by the loss of a child and betrayal of lovers, and finally as an older woman looking back at her journey.

Secondly, several in the seventeen member all-female cast portray both male and female roles. Because the play is set when all roles on the English stage, including female roles in Shakespeare’s plays, were played by men, we get some interesting twists. Included here is a scene from “Othello” featuring Grace Van Horn playing a man who plays Desdemona, a woman.

Gender-bending and cross-sex casting are, in fact, part of this production’s charm. Female performers, such as Shanice Davis, portray foppish ineffectual husbands who can neither protect or provide for their wives in a world which confines women to domestic labor, child rearing or stroking their spouse’s ego. Other female performers use a deep vocal register and menacing misogynistic gestures to taunt women with insults and threats if they fail to keep their place or hold their tongue.

Here Malcolm is showing us what men look like through the eyes of the opposite sex. The picture is sometimes a comic burlesque, but all too often is terrifying. This part of Malcom’s writing is reminiscent of the sexual politics of English playwright, Caryl Churchill.

Corinne Marsh
WMU Theatre
A scene from "Emilia"

Malcolm’s boldest choice is her fictional assertion that Shakespeare borrowed language and verse from the writing of Emilia Bassano, England’s first published female poet.

While this conceit makes for an interesting plot point and helps fuel Emilia’s rage against the men who control her world, the script’s real problem is the weak character Malcolm creates for Will Shakespeare. The character of Will falls short as a proper foil for the clever, strong- willed Emilia, and an engaging verbal or physical clash between these characters never quite materializes. Their scenes seem to lack the chemistry or heat of their sexual relationship.

This production’s strongest feature is its remarkable, relentless visual and aural assault on the senses. Director Kate Thomsen’s dynamic staging, Megan Ludwig’s choreography, and Grace Carrol’s original music shine when the cast, as full or partial chorus, gives ritualistic structure through rhythmic chanting, and movement to female activities. These include group synchronized flattering of men, matrimony, child birth, washing clothes or in the case of the scriptorium Emilia inspires, the mechanical cranking out of poetry for publication and profit.

Another memorable stylized visual element is Emilia’s attempted suicide by drowning, and her subsequent rescue and reclamation from a life of privilege by the washerwomen, commoners who inhabit the banks of the Thames.

Despite a plot that is often difficult to follow due to unintelligible rendering of key lines and passages of spoken dialogue, the scenes cited above, help to focus the play’s storyline and mark Emilia’s progress toward wisdom and self-actualization.

Other noteworthy visual elements include the intermittent, gentle cascade of leaves from above, suggesting both the passing of the seasons and the sheets of paper Emilia fills with verse.

On the same page here is Scenic Designer, Ian Whistler’s set. His multi leveled bare stage is punctuated with a single neon tree, perhaps a willow, with piles of books around its base. Could this be the Tree of Knowledge? And if so, given the play’s action, does it bear both a curse for women, marking them as a threat to male society, as well as a promise of liberation through learning and self-expression?

After the burning of the alleged witch, Eve, played with vigor and innocence by Kiara Durbin, the stunning ending of this show fills the auditorium with the glowing skeletal structures of women heroes from the past, as Emilia issues a fiery charge for the women of in future.

Here Malcolm’s lead character gives an anachronistic nod to modern-day feminism and the world that hopefully will replace the one she inhabits.