Written by Vern Thiessen, Directed by Miles Potter; Scenic/Costume Designer, Peter Hartwell; Lighting Designer, Kevin Fraser; Composer, Marc Desormeaux; Sound Designer, Peter McBoyle; Production Manager, Ray Salverda; Production Consultant, Marylu Moyer; Stage Manager, Emily McMullen; Produced by Colin Rivers, Marquis Entertainment
CAST: Seana McKenna as Anne Hathaway
Performances through February 3 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.MRT.org
On the face of it, Vern Thiessen's Shakespeare's Will is a one-woman show about Anne Hathaway. However, with the role being played by Seana McKenna, lead actress of the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival, don't be alarmed if you sense the presence of at least half a dozen other characters onstage with her at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. McKenna is actress, magician, and ventriloquist rolled into one magnificent performer who brings this historical figure out of the shadow of her world-famous husband into the limelight.
To say that McKenna commands the stage is akin to saying that William Shakespeare was a pretty good writer. She is up there alone for about an hour and fifteen minutes, flashing her bright eyes, intoning a variety of voice changes, and employing a panoply of acting skills to grab the interest of the audience and hold our attention without a pause. The script requires her to carry on both sides of numerous conversations with men, women, and children, and she captures their distinctive personalities with tone of voice and mannerisms. She makes us care about Anne as her own person and sympathize with her as we learn of the many challenges she faced, usually alone, when "Bill" was living away from home in London.
Costumed by Peter Hartwell in a floor-length, blue-green Elizabethan-style gown that dates her to the late 16th century, McKenna sweeps across a raised octagonal platform, also designed by Hartwell, or steps down to sit on a nearby bench, or ambles around the perimeter to suggest a change of scene. Director Miles Potter sets a pace that rises and falls appropriately with the events being recalled. Kevin Fraser's lighting design is most effective in setting the mood, the weather, or the time of day. When Anne recounts an evening sitting around a campfire as a young child, with her father telling stories to his children who have left their mother to die from the plague, the theater goes almost totally darK. McKenna's face is illuminated by an orange glow emanating from the floor in the middle of the platform, casting flickering shadows up to the fly rigging. Combined with the excitement in her voice as she reminisces, the lighting effect is incredibly evocative. Fraser and Sound Designer Peter McBoyle account for some realistic thunderstorms, strategically placed, as well.
Shakespeare's Will is based on some of the known facts about Hathaway, but is primarily rooted in the playwright's imagination and his desire to explore her life's journey. He accurately represents the gap in the ages of the couple when they married (she was 26, he was 18) and that Anne was with child. They had three children - Susanna and twins Judith and Hamnet, the latter being the apple of his father's eye as the only male. The cause of the boy's death at the age of eleven is unknown, but Thiessen uses it as a watershed event in his interpretation of the story. Shakespeare's sister Joan also plays a key role in Anne's life, albeit not in a positive sense.
The play opens with Hathaway looking back over the course of their marriage following the burial of her husband. It is one of many poignant moments and McKenna conveys her ambivalence resulting from deeply loving this man who spent so much of his life away from her. Being able to maintain independence and seek his fame were part of the marriage contract and Anne lived up to it, despite having to raise the children alone. Upon returning to Stratford, Bill died within six years at the age of fifty-two. His will is Thiessen's theme, but the document sits like an elephant in the room until the latter stages of the play when Anne can no longer avoid learning of its contents.