Bard as geek in iambic pentameter

By Anna Marie D'Addarie - September 27, 2007

Shakespeare is a poet, playwright, husband, father, actor, lover, and now at the Vineyard Playhouse, a dweeb. Forget the images of Gwyneth Paltrow in the arms of Joseph Fiennes in the film "Shakespeare In Love." In the "The English Channel" playwright Robert Brustein sees the Bard as a bookish, soft-spoken man, lacking a personality of his own and a conduit through which other people's ideas flow, most notably his contemporary (and rival) Christopher "Kit" Marlowe.

Sometimes funny, often dramatic, "The English Channel" tells the story of Shakespeare, living in a garret above the Mermaid Tavern in London, waiting out the plague that has closed the theatres. He spends his time writing poetry and jotting down ideas for plays, ideas brought to the attic by Kit Marlowe; poet and lover, Emilia Lanier; and patron, Henry "Hal" Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton.

The script is part language poetry and part name-that-Shakespeare. The audience is treated to dialogue loaded with double entendres and spoken trippingly by the cast of four actors (Sean Dugan, Gabriel Field, Merritt Janson, and Alex Pollock) who opened this play at Suffolk University earlier this month.

Mr. Brustein believes that most writers are a blank slate, just waiting for life to write upon them. Actor Sean Dugan plays Shakespeare with a perfect blank stare. He comes to, long enough to scribble down a line, barely out of someone else's mouth, snatching it out of the air and into posterity. Mr. Dugan's Shakespeare is a beat behind the rest of the world, and certainly no match for the wit of the other three characters. He is fun to watch.

Gabriel Field plays an exuberant Kit Marlowe. His character frames the play but also provides, according to Mr. Brustein, just about all the plot lines for Shakespeare's plays. Had Marlowe lived beyond 29 years, who knows what he might have written, or which of Shakespeare's plays might carry Marlowe's name. Mr. Field packs so much life into his Marlowe that even death cannot silence him.

If too much money can make you bored with life, Alex Pollock's Hal Wriothesley must be loaded. Hal glides onto the stage and into Shakespeare's heart and wallet. Shakespeare dedicated his poems "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece" to Hal and many believe he is also the "Fair Youth" of the sonnets. As the plot thickens, Mr. Pollock turns his character from detached to driven. The transition works well, moving Hal from just this side of caricature into a man able to carry out court intrigue.

Merritt Janson plays Emilia Lanier is the voice of feminism in a world where women owned little. She has fallen in love with Shakespeare even before they meet, thinking him as remarkable as his plays. She soon discovers he is merely the English Channel. Their short love affair does bear fruit, at least in this version, but more importantly she inspires Shakespeare's female characters. Ms. Janson is certainly up to the task of speaking for an entire gender. When her character presents Shakespeare with her newly published volume of poetry, he seems confused and awestruck. Then she takes it back to autograph the inside cover. It is a nice piece of stage business, the perfect touch to Ms. Janson's strong performance.

The one-act play is directed by Wesley Savick, the set is designed by Richard Chambers, with lighting design by John R. Malinowski, and costumes by Seth Bodie. The costumes, although well constructed, appeared to have come fresh from the cleaners. There was little to suggest plague-ridden London about them. There was too much modern fabric for the time period such as the crinoline under Emilia's dress. The stage was nicely designed and very well built, but the set dressing was also too perfect. I longed to see a rat scurry across the stage.

We have to thank the Playhouse for bringing this show to the Island. The good, strong performances coupled with Mr. Brustein's poetry make for an interesting night at the theatre.

"The English Channel" continues tonight, Sept. 27, at 7 pm; Friday, Sept. 28 and Saturday, Sept. 29, both at 8 pm, at the Vineyard Playhouse, 24 Church St., Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $30 or $25 for seniors, students, or rush tickets. For more information, call 508-696-6300 or visit