REVIEW: College Theatres Spice Up Shakespeare in Three Productions

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BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Shakespeare is alive and well at Upstate colleges and universities as two new plays around the Bard just closed and a reimagined version of one of his histories opens on December 4.

The Shoestring Players at USC Upstate just presented “Midnight Pillow,” a series of collected Shakespeare scenes, many that explore the varied relationships between pairs of young lovers, conceived and edited by Stephen Unwin, the founder of the English Touring Company.

Fresh from the success of the production of his play, “All Our Children”, at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London, and having authored several volumes on Shakespeare and directed many of the Bard’s works, he brings extensive expertise to the Shoestring Players’ season.

He also championed the initial collaboration between The Rose Theatre in London, where he served as Artistic Director, and the Shoestring Players that provides Upstate students the opportunity to complete internships in London.

Bob Jones University sets the rarely-staged “Henry IV, Part 1” at an all-girls’ boarding school in a production directed by David Schwingle on Monday, December 4 at 6:30 (a Pre-show lecture) and Tuesday-Saturday, December 5-9 at 7:30 p.m. at BJU Theatre Arts, 1700 Wade Hampton Blvd, Greenville Tickets are available at http://www.tickettailor.com.

But the most innovative offering in this trio is likely A Part Equal;” Women and Mr. Shakespeare,” a 2014 play by Derek Davidson written in honor of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday.

Billed as a survey of the many women who influenced and shaped the Bard’s work and character, Davidson’s work is based on memoirs, speeches and historical accounts and countless research.

Directed with unbridled flair and a unique vision by Melissa Owens, “A Part Equal” is told through entertaining monologues in an array of accents, as well as enchanting dance and movement (choreographed by Dance Converse faculty member Naina Dewan) that illustrates Shakespeare at birth, taking his first step and writing his first words, and much more.

Granted, Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, and his daughter, Judith (subject of a nasty lawsuit over her father’s estate), had a profound influence on the young and elder William, as did Black Luce, the African-American brothel owner that inspired a hearty portion of his sonnets.

But Shakespeare and his many successful plays may have faded into obscurity if not for a coterie of novel women over the centuries from Margaret Hughes, whom with King Charles II’s blessing was the first female actress who played a female on stage (instead of the customary boys at the time), most notably Desdemona, to contemporary actor Fiona Shaw, who this century played a gender-bending turn as Richard II. The Shoestring Players last season presented “The Compleat Female Stage Beauty” that was based on the gender revolution of the London theatre scene.

The play acknowledges contributions around the world by women including Nancy Hallam whose family brought Shakespeare to the American colonies by playing roles such as Juliet and Imogen in “Cymbeline” and model, poet and artist Lizzie Siddal, who was forever immortalized as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ notable 1852 painting.

And from suffragette Jeanette Rankin to Helen Keller and Virginia Woolf to legendary stage star Sarah Bernhardt (the finest characterization in this production), this grand ensemble of ladies looked as if they were floating through time on Caitlin Conneely’s set in this devised piece that weaves Davidson’s script into a parade of history’s vibrant women, each connected to the Bard in some way, and constructed within an amalgam of acting methods & expression,

Congratulations to all of the Converse performers for a  tantalizing and well-executed piece of visionary theatre: Alyssa Myers, Caroline Downs, Joy McDade, Marissa Messamer, Olivia Byers, Anastacia Hutchinson, Eleanor Lee, Kathleen Langbehn, Mary Watford, Sam Ellis, Ashlei Alston, Jaelyn Clark, Kennedy Anderson, Natalie Ritz and Sophie Ferguson.

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