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A CurtainUp Review
The English Channel


Poor poets borrow. Great poets steal.—Christopher Marlowe
There are very few plays that are as literary, dramatic and entertaining as The English Channel which just opened at Abingdon Theatre Complex. The fact that the play was written by Robert Brustein, a man who served for twenty years as director of the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard and is currently Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Suffolk University in Boston, is partly the reason, but not all.

The play is a probing exploration and imagination of Shakespeare's relationship with Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Southampton and the Dark Lady of his sonnets, is masterfully directed by Daniela Varon and features a truly extraordinary cast: Stafford Clark Price as Shakespeare, Sean Dugan as Marlowe; Brian Robert Burns as Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton; and Lori Gardner as Emilia Lanier, whom Brustein proposes as the Dark Lady.

Mike Billings' set, a room in the Mermaid Tavern during the plague year, 1593 is perfectly suited to the Abingdon's intimate space. And Laura Crow's costumes, extravagant for the Earl, practical, almost rustic for Shakespeare, send the audience right back to the 16th century.

The drama opens and closes with the ghost of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's contemporary and rival, killed mysteriously in a brawl, although many thought he was assassinated for political reasons. One of the drama's main conceits is that Shakespeare, who was obsessed with language and his own legacy, constantly stole phrases and ideas from Marlowe, although it was ironically Shakespeare who fulfilled both his own and Marlowe's promise.

While Shakespeare is depicted as na´ve, earnest and fawning, especially in his relationship with his patron, the bisexual, pro-Catholic conspirator, the Earl of Southampton. Marlowe is cynical, wise and rebellious. It's hard not to root for the doomed renegade.

Shakespeare, who has a wife and several children back in Stratford nevertheless is on the prowl for available women. Emilia Lanier, who has her own husband and series of love affairs to account for, is a perfect match, until Shakespeare— no feminist he— finds out she is no more faithful to him than any of her other lovers.

Was Lanier the Dark Lady? Although the evidence is scant, her status as the first professional female poet of the English language certainly makes the thought appealing. But when a relationship is as lusty and dramatic as the one Brustein writes and Clark-Price and Gardner portray, who cares about the facts?

Brustein puts the private affairs of Will and his friends into the context of the turbulent times they lived in. Elizabeth I reigns as the Protestant monarch, but the Catholics are still licking their wounds after the death of her Catholic sister, Mary. Plagues can still shut down theaters. And dramatists are subject to the whims of people far more dangerous than critics— their patrons.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of The English Channel is the way Brustein slyly integrates Shakespeare's own words into the script, as well as his many winks and nods at future plays and plots and personalities. It all makes this irresistible theater for any Shakespeare lover.

The English Channel
By Robert Brustein
Directed by Daniela Varon
Cast: Sean Dugan (Christopher Marlowe), Stafford Clark-Price (William Shakespeare), Brian Robert Burns (Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton), Lori Gardner (Emilia Lanier).
Set and Lighting Design: Mike Billings
Costume Design: Laura Crow
Composer/Sound Design: Scott Killian
Running Time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Abingdon Theatre Complex, 312 West 36th Street, off Eighth Avenue
From 9/13/08; opening 9/21/08, closing 10/5/08
Tuesday — Thursday at 7pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm
Tickets: $20 (212) 868-4444
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons September 20, 2008 preview
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