TheatreNOW, Wilmington’s premier dinner theatre, offers up local playwright Don Fried’s “Shakespeare Inc.” For their autumn show. During his curtain speech, Fried explained his inspiration for the show: While reading a biography on Shakespeare, which featured arguments for and against the possibility that the Bard did not write works attributed to him (commonly known as “The Authorship Question” by scholars and “sour grapes” by mere mortals), Fried found himself contriving scenarios about the obstacles faced in others writing Shakespeare’s work. By the end of the chapter, Fried realized he had the makings of a farce on his hands. Hence, “Shakespeare Inc.”
I am going to get this out of the way up front: I accept theatre is a collaborative art. I accept scripts change, evolve and grow during rehearsal and performance. However, I was heartbroken the day Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance unveiled the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt” regarding the Authorship Question. So, let’s just say I am biased on the topic. In Fried’s defense, he is writing a light-hearted comedy that includes big names of the usual suspects to make for a very fun and funny evening, which isn’t really aimed at seriously debating authorship. Indeed, “Shakespeare Inc.” is entertaining and cleverly contrived.
Christopher Marlowe (Braxton Lathan Williams) has run out of money and credit at his favorite watering hole. Even the aging, addled barmaid (Carol Pendergrast) can’t be flirted with or flattered enough to extend credit to him. In the corner, spending expansively, is a young aspiring actor and writer, with enough cash in his pocket to keep the ale flowing: William Shaksper (Joshua Drew).
Williams plays Marlowe like Stephen Fry playing Oscar Wilde: He has found the perfect target for his erudite wit in Drew’s Shaksper, who is none too bright about most things except money matters.
Marlowe attempts to teach Shaksper to write in exchange for drink when two of his “Patrons” appear: Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (Hal Cosec) and William Stanley (Rich Deike). In real life, DeVere is probably the most popular contender for the authorship prize. In this show, he becomes one piece of a larger machine. Like many people who have strong opinions about political or religious figures, it is hard for me to let go of my resentment toward the deceased DeVere. But I should; it is not his fault people wrongly have accused him thus. However, Cosec does his level best to remind me DeVere was human, with human wants, needs, failings, and concerns. It might be Cosec who is responsible for whatever thaw I have in my heart toward the Earl. (It certainly isn’t Derek Jacobi whose love of this theory has caused a deep strain in our personal relationship.)
Deike’s Stanley is “The Fixer” in this charade: He makes the deals, buries the bodies, and tries to keep the peace. His calm demeanor is essential to balance the passions of Marlowe and DeVere. Freid’s premise for the farce is Marlowe’s death was faked by Marlowe, DeVere and Stanley. For the next several decades he lived in seclusion at the house of Mary Sydney (Lupin Byers) and collectively the four of them churned out plays under the Bard’s name. It is actually a very clever and funny premise and is sort of the inverse of the film “The Front,” about the blacklisted writers in the ‘50s.
Yet, these setups don’t work without some sort of nemesis to struggle against. Here, it is Francis Bacon (Quentin M. Proulx) and Ben Jonson (Jeremy Weir), who, along with the others, have been credited with the authorship of the Bard’s work. Bacon has wangled his way into a position of authority at Queen Elizabeth’s Court and brings her (Carol Pendergrast) to visit Shaksper at Mary Sydney’s house. Pendergrast is really in her element as the queen. She manages to be gracious yet in control of the room and believably needles Bacon.
Bacon and his sidekick/protégé, Ben Jonson, are the bad guys the audience will love to hate; it is hard to remember the people we are rooting for also are up to nefarious activities. Weir plays Jonson like a ‘90s grunge rocker: a smirk filled with angst and self-righteousness. Fried also threw in a little Easter Egg for Shakespeare fans with a reference to Jonson’s “The Isle of Dogs”—a play so scandalous and seditious, it got Jonson and coauthor Thomas Nashe jailed. No known copies of it exist; it was the scandal of 1597. Fried sets it two years earlier as the title card tells us 1596, making the production in 1595 for dramatic purposes. I am one of a handful of people in town who would notice or care about the dates, but even that tickled and pleased me.
I admit I walked in the door with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Yet, Fried and the cast brought me around once I realized the show wasn’t going to be like the film “Anonymous,” on authorship, but rather something so absurd it couldn’t possibly be taken as anything other than entertainment.
“Well, at least you will get a good meal while you are simmering in anger,” Jock postulated as I walked out the door on my way to TheatreNOW. I’m telling you: the “Authorship Question” is not one I take lightly. Nor frankly, is Denise Gordon’s cooking.
I arrived hungry. I have learned over time never to eat lunch before attending an evening at TheatreNOW. The festivities began with cauliflower, carrot and parsnip soup. A slight tang from the carrots I have to confess was what kept it from being just another cup of soup. I would have been happy with that for dinner and an entertaining evening of Bard jokes and one-liners from all his plays. But then the fish and chips arrived, along with a lentil and roast vegetable pie. I ate every bit of the lentils; don’t get me wrong. They were great! But I have been dreaming about Chef Gordon’s caper-dill tartar sauce for the fish and chips. Seriously. When I was little, my mother went through a range of attempts to get me to eat food I didn’t like—from cajoling to threats to the flat-out power play of refusing to let me leave the table ‘til my meal was gone. Eventually, she came around to the idea of hiding the offenders in cheese sauce. If she had had this caper-dill sauce then, all her problems would have been solved. At the risk of offending Gordon, I finally just put it on everything on the plate. No point in pretending here. So, order the fish and chips and ask for extra sauce. Trust me.
Fried surprises with a very erudite and funny script that can please devotees of Shakespeare—and those who haven’t seen a Shakespeare play since freshman year’s mandatory read of “Romeo and Juliet.” It is a great evening. Even if the claim Marlowe was behind it all is absurd (I mean, really, aside from “Faustus,” have you seen anything of his produced in the last 50 years?). Go see it and laugh, and even surprise yourself with how many references you catch.