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OSF’s ‘Upstart Crow’ explores Shakespeare’s life

2/16/2017 - West Side Leader
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By David Ritchey

Lara Mielcarek stars in Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s “The Upstart Crow.”
Photo: Scott Custer
DOWNTOWN AKRON — The Ohio Shakespeare Festival is staging “The Upstart Crow,” a comedy-drama that explores William Shakespeare and the people he loved.

Six months after the death of her father, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Susanna Shakespeare Hall (1583-1649) (Lara Mielcarek) meets with her father’s former business partner and lifelong friend, Richard Burbage (1568-1619) (Terry Burgler). Burbage, one of the finest actors of Shakespeare’s time, knew Shakespeare’s secrets and Hall wanted as many of those secrets as possible.

Vincent Dowling (1929-2013) wrote “The Upstart Crow,” which tells of the meeting of Burbage and Hall. The title of the play comes from a review written by poet and playwright Robert Greene in 1592. In the review, Greene unflatteringly described Shakespeare as “an upstart crow.”

“The Upstart Crow” is another attempt to explain Shakespeare. Dowling wrote this play to make some of Shakespeare’s life more transparent. The question that has to be answered by audience members is how well Dowling succeeded.

This script raises questions about how much writers reveal of themselves in their work. Dowling finds many lines, scenes and characters that he ties to Shakespeare’s personal life. These may or may not be true. I find this practice disturbing and lacking credibility.

The script offers challenges to the actors and the audience. First, Burbage and Hall discuss Shakespeare’s personal life and, second, they act scenes and monologues from some of his plays.

Shakespeare spent little time with his family, and Hall resented her father’s absence from her life. Yet, she enjoyed the prestige of being the daughter of the famous writer and the financial success he shared with his family.

Burbage was one of the outstanding actors of his time. He and Shakespeare were members of the same theater company. Shakespeare wrote some of his most outstanding roles for Burbage, including King Lear, Hamlet and other important roles.

Dowling wrote that Shakespeare worked with Burbage to develop a role to fit the actor’s abilities.

According to this script, Shakespeare owned several houses in Stratford-upon-Avon, a town in England and Shakespeare’s birthplace. The home of Shakespeare’s wife, Ann Hathaway, was large but not elegant (I’ve visited that house). But, the other houses were rented and provided income for the family. In the script, Hall asks about the Dark Lady (maybe a lover and maybe someone who provided the playwright with financial support). Hall wants to know if her father had an affair with a man or men. Of course, these questions were not answered and could not be answered today.

Hall continued to be upset that her father did not attend the funeral of his son, Hamnet. Burbage explained the reason — a show opened that night.

Burbage and Hall use their discussions of Shakespeare to provide opportunities to read speeches from Shakespeare’s plays or to play scenes. This added to the entertainment. Unfortunately, the scenes from Shakespeare’s plays do not advance the story of “The Upstart Crow.”

In this production, Burbage and Hall verbally duel until each starts to read lines from one of Shakespeare’s plays. But the monologues and short scenes are less than satisfying. I was tempted to call out, “Speak louder, speak clearer, articulate.” Mielcarek had a long monologue she spoke in a cockney accent so thick that I couldn’t understand any of the meaning of her speech.

“The Upstart Crow” runs about 90 minutes with a short intermission.

Dowling spent much of his career working in the Abbey Theatre in Ireland. He was the artistic director of Great Lakes Theatre Festival in Cleveland from 1976 to 1984. He is credited with discovering Tom Hanks. Dowling donated most of his papers to the libraries at Kent State University and John Carroll University.

“The Upstart Crow” is running in repertory with “Lone Star” and has performances Feb. 17 and 19. “Lone Star” runs Feb. 16 and 18. Performances take place at Greystone Hall, 103 S. High St.

For tickets, call 888-718-4253.


David Ritchey has a Ph.D. in communications and is a professor of communications at The University of Akron. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the Cleveland Critics Circle.

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