I generally don’t do best-of lists, but halfway through the summer season I can point to one show that, in this critic’s book, is the pick of the lot so far. Shakespeare’s Will, at Shakespeare & Company, is a fanciful reconsideration of the Swan of Avon from the point of view of the woman who was both the key character and a bit player in his life story. Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and naive and she was 26 and pregnant; she stayed behind in Stratford when he went to London to join the players; and in his will he notoriously bequeathed her his “second-best bed.” Beyond that we know little of Anne Hathaway’s life and nothing of her character.
In his one-woman play, Vern Thiessen imagines what we don’t know—and changes much of what we do. It takes place on the day of Shakespeare’s funeral in 1616, when Anne has been handed the will, and before opening it reflects on her less-than-idyllic marriage. Thiessen imagines a spirited woman who had lots of lovers before and after marriage, who accepts the role of virtual widow and sole parent readily if resentfully, but who longs for her husband and prizes the poem he once wrote for her.
The words of that sonnet, which puns on her name, are stitched into the flowing backdrop to Daniela Varon’s imaginative production in the company’s Bernstein Theatre. I found the play engaging, despite—and in some cases because of—the author’s impudent liberties with the known facts. But what puts the show at the top of my must-see list is Kristin Wold’s fiery, funny, deeply passionate performance as Anne.
She laughs and sings, struts and frets, taunts her husband’s memory with tales of sexual adventure, resourceful child-rearing and narrow escapes from the plague, along with witty impersonations of Anne’s hot-tempered father and Shakespeare’s “bitter and nosy” sister. For 90 riveting minutes, Wold brings a captivating woman, as well as a fascinating if fanciful world, to vivid and exhilarating life.
Wold also appears in the other show currently in the intimate Bernstein, Julius Caesar. This is one of Tina Packer’s minimalist “Bare Bard” stagings, with seven actors playing all the parts. With basic costumes and a simple modular set, the focus is on the text and the drama of the play’s supercharged relationships. The actors not only play a minimum of four roles apiece (Wold has nine, including the wives of both Caesar and Brutus) but also create ensemble illustrations of the dialogue. Some of these movement-theater moments work nicely, such as the mime that embodies Cassius’ mocking description of saving Caesar from drowning. But others, like the snarling “dogs of war” in Antony’s vow to punish Caesar’s murderers, smack of acting school exercises.
Nigel Gore makes a smug, haughty Caesar who’s clearly asking for it, Jason Asprey a prickly, impassioned Cassius, and James Udom a fiery, foxy Antony. The acting style is S&Co’s trademark heightened vernacular, with one exception. Eric Tucker’s Brutus speaks with flat naturalism, so that his self-justifying oration to the plebeians angered at the assassination sounds less like a noble Roman and more like a CEO addressing disgruntled stockholders.•
Both shows run through August at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, (413) 637-3353, shakespeare.org.
Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and his StageStruck blog is at valleyadvocate.com/blogs/stagestruck.