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Shakespeare’s Will

Tannis Kowalchuk,                 Photo credit: Emily Hewitt


                                                      by Julia Polinsky


The minute you start tinkering with the Legend that is Shakespeare, you invite disagreement. The problem is: we don’t know much about Shakespeare. Existing documents include such things as birth, marriage, and death records, and, of course, his will, with the famous legacy: to his wife, Anne Hathaway, he left only his second-best bed.


Writers from James Joyce to Germaine Greer have worked that bequest, viewing the will, and the second-best bed, through their own lenses. In Shakespeare’s Will, bequest, will, and wife provide the grist from which playwright Vern Thiessen tediously grinds this one-woman one-act. An earnest performance by Tannis Kowalchuk, under the direction of Mimi McGurl, does little to shed light on Hathaway, Shakespeare, or the will.


Thiessen throws many of the documented facts about Anne Hathaway out the window in Shakespeare’s Will, apparently in service to using Anne as a springboard. For what? Unfortunately, for his own exploration of the journey of a woman who faces adversity, rises above it, and rekindles a zest for life in herself. Oh, yawn. Yet another work by a man about a woman who faces adversity yadda yadda, rises above, yadda yadda…



Shakespeare’s Will takes place on the day of “Bill’s” funeral. Shakespeare’s sister hands The Will to Anne, who has not read it and does not want to, but knows she must. Before reading it, Anne dreams back through time and memory, remembering passion, childbirth and child rearing, desertion, and a very modern-style marriage of people who will live their own lives, with respect for each other’s separate desires.


Bill’s desire takes him to London and a life on the stage; hers, to family life and unnamed lovers. When plague breaks out, Anne protects her family by taking them to live at the seashore, away from the terrible illness and death surrounding them. That seashore visit echoes her own childhood, when her family did the same in order to avoid plague that was killing her mother. As comforting as Anne finds the sea – the play is full of sea imagery, from the first line (“I long for the sea”) to last (“to hell with your words/sink them in the sea…”) -- that trip saved the family from bubonic plague, but still has terrible consequences.

When, after her reverie, Anne must finally read the will, she slowly checks off the bequests: to his daughters, his friends, his sister, and herself. At this point, Thiessen’s departure from the historical record really goes off the rails, making up an alternate history/feminist polemic, with their son’s death from drowning as the motivation behind The Legacy.

Wait, what? Son’s death from drowning? What drowning? There’s an ambiguous line about the surf “…washing your smile out to sea” in the midst of the memory of part the seaside visit when the family make a waterside portrait of Bill out of sand, shells, and seaweed. That’s it: the only reference to any kind of loss from the time of the plague (according to historical record, the boy died of the plague).

When Anne vividly remembers and describes their son’s death from drowning, she understands why Shakespeare leaves her the small bequest of the bed -- punishment. For Thiessen, the loss of her home, and the memory of the loss of her son, merge, and make it possible for her to “… move on. You always move on.”

In all fairness, the poetic language and imagery of the play are suffused with beauty. Kowalchuk does manage to make it sound like lovely poetry, in spite of the faintly vacant space from which she acts this tale of lusty, frightened, strong, angry, resigned Anne; there’s very little there there, in her performance.

Even the songs she sings, to music and sound accompaniment by Rima Fand, wonder while they wander. Inconsistently, when she acts the several characters of the story, only one of them – her father -- seems any different from the others. He gets an accent; all others get North American Basic Theater Voice. There seems to be no reason at all for this one excursion into voice talent.

The inconsistencies, the flavorless quality of the performance, the basic premise, the odd musical accompaniment: all add up to a New Age-y feminist statement that just doesn’t work, as theater, as performance, or as feminism. You have better ways to spend an hour.


Shakespeare’s Will


145 Sixth Avenue

Tickets $25/$15 students

Tuesday-Saturday 7pm; Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday 2pm; Information: 212-352-3101

Opens March 21; runs through April 1