A few weeks ago our son told us one of his co-workers was performing in Annie at the American Fork amphitheater. The night we went there was some light rain making a beautiful pattern in the spotlights. At the end of the play Annie’s optimism inspires President Roosevelt’s cabinet to come up with ideas that will pull America out of the great depression, including the Works Progress Administration, which put men across the country to work doing things like building stone amphitheaters on hillsides in small towns like American Fork and Provo. There’s a third amphitheater up Provo Canyon at BYU’s Aspen Grove campground. I believe it has a stream running between the stage and audience.
I’ve never seen a performance there, but I have performed at the Castle Amphitheater in Provo. In the mid-1970s Orson Scott Card got a $10,000 grant for his Utah Valley Repertory Theater Company and made some improvements, like replacing the crumbling stone and mortar stage with cement, which now is showing some wear.
I had a minor part in Romeo and Juliet, and remember large audiences for the plays there, so I was a bit surprised that the audience for Mahonri Stewart’s new play, The Drown’ed Book, or, the History of William Shakespeare, Part Last was fairly small. The Castle could easily hold an audience 20 times as great, the kind of audience the play deserves. (Parking is another matter, but the Seven Peaks parking lot is a short walk away.)
Playgoers will recognize echoes of situations from Shakespeare’s plays, beginning with Thomas Quiney (Sam Schofield)’s funny mocking soliloquy against Stratford’s wealthiest citizen, apparently inspired by his father’s having had to beg a loan from Shakespeare. His anger and vituperation seem as out of proportion to the humiliation as Iago’s rage at being passed over for a promotion.
The rage colors his courtship of Shakespeare’s daughter Judith (Zel Bromley), who has her own rage against her father for being absent when her twin Hamnet died. “That was really his name?” my son asked. “I thought he said ‘Hamlet’ the first time.”
Hamnet is not haunted by a ghost, though–he is a ghost (Hyrum Stewart, the playwright’s son playing the playwright’s son). He has a single line, repeated throughout the play, “Joy,” and it contrasts with the sorrow the characters feel, especially when he tries to comfort Judith.
Thomas and Judith’s courtship proceeds, as you would expect, like Katherine and Petruchio’s from Taming of the Shrew, but as the play progresses he begins to feel more like Bertram from All’s Well That End’s Well. (Words Anne Hathaway (Shawnda Moss) says at the end of the play.)
The costs to the family of William (Bradley Moss) being absent for so much of his family’s life ripple throughout the play. Anne’s statement “Come home, William” brought to mind a visual image of the same line in Tim Slover’s March Tale. (Tim played Romeo in Card’s aforementioned production.) I hear the line as a homage to March Tale, which takes place at the other end of Shakespeare’s career, the beginning.
But if March Tale is about a young playwright beginning to come into his own, The Drown’ed Book is about the costs of that art. Bradley Moss flubbed a few lines and I found myself wondering if that wasn’t deliberate, part of the poignance of William’s words being inadequate to solve the problems and salve the sorrows of his family life when it mirrors situations he was able to resolve in his plays.
The play begins with William borrowing a device from Much Ado About Nothing to nudge his daughter Susannah (Belinda Purdum) and her suitor John Hall (Peter F. Christensen) toward the altar, but as the tension in the family builds, Anne says to him, “No more poetry!”
The wit and eloquence Shakespeare used to shape his plays and the world they shaped fail William’s family as they wonder what characters they represent to their father. Am I Goneril or Regan, Judith asks at one point.
At the end of the play William presents his wife and daughters with newly written plays, telling them he has been working in a new form that mixes comedy and tragedy, and The Drown’ed Book does as well.
I chatted with Mahonri during the intermission, mentioning an essay where Robert Graves said that when he was writing A Wife For Mr. Milton he only used words that had been in the language at that time. Mahonri laughed and described his own stack of books and online dictionaries to accomplish the same feat.
The result is a delightful play with an ensemble that works well together. My son, who played Leonato in a high school production of Much Ado About Nothing–and who greatly enjoyed catching Hero as she fainted each night, thought it was a little slow, even boring at times, but was gratified to hear Dogberry’s comment about his piece of flesh echoed in the play. So there’s even something for the groundlings–along with a great view of Provo at night, and even heated seats.
Joy and enjoy.