Sunday, May 7, 2023

"Emilia" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

A few months ago, the Guthrie Theater brought us the brilliant new play Born with Teeth, imagining meetings between playwrights Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, and the theory that the two co-wrote some of the history plays attributed to Shakespeare. Now, Ten Thousand Things is taking another look at this subject, from the feminist side. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's play Emilia premiered at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in 2018 and explores the life of Emilia Bassano, one of England's first published female poets. The play theorizes that she and Shakespeare were lovers, and that he took some of their conversations and put them into his plays, making her a contributor to the work of Shakespeare. There's lots of discussion about who really wrote the plays we know as Shakespeare (e.g., this article "Was Shakespeare a Woman?" by Elizabeth Winkler, which has been expanded into a book to be released this month). The truth is we'll likely never really know. And that's not what this play is about, anyway. It's about women's voices, women's stories, and why they have been systematically silenced throughout history. Told by an all-female cast, Emilia is the story of a historical woman who would not be silenced, even if it did take a few hundred years for history to recognize her contributions. It's a story that's all too relatable for modern women, and one we can take inspiration from.

In typical TTT style, the story is told in a small square performance space surrounded by two rows of chairs, with All the Lights On. Eight women play Emilia and all of the other characters in her story, male and female. They're among the best actors in #TCTheater, and in this performance style they're up close and personal, real and raw, with nowhere to hide. It's truly the purist form of acting, of theater, I've ever experienced, and these women do not disappoint. 

the three Emilias (Marisa Tejeda, Sun Mee Chomet,
 and Greta Oglesby, photo by Alvan Washington)
The playwright chose to write the play with three actors taking turns playing Emilia, which allows us a more expansive view of the character, as if we all could be Emilia. Greta Oglesby is the older Emilia looking back on her life and narrating her story, and often all three are present, observing. Making their TTT debut, Marisa Tejeda is just the perfect young Emilia, so natural and empathetic as we follow Emila through the death of her father at a young age, being sent to live with a noble woman and learn the ways of the court, becoming mistress to a rich older man who supports her writing, and eventually marrying a cousin. Sun Mee Chomet takes over the role of Emila as she becomes a teacher and published author. All three actors bring something different and interesting to the character, giving us a full picture of her. The rest of this talented ensemble (Maggie Chestovich, George Keller, Mo Perry, Kimberly Richardson, and Sophina Saggau) play multiple characters, from ladies to Emilia's lovers to washerwomen, each one making interesting and fun choices to differentiate the characters vocally and physically. 

TTT Artistic Director Marcela Lorca directs the play in way that makes it feel like this play was written to be performed in this style, rather than in a traditional theater setting. So dynamic and playful and thoroughly engaging. The cast truly works together as an ensemble, creating this story and coloring its world. Resident Music Director Peter Vitale once again creates a perfect soundscape for the story, and also composed some songs that are sung by the cast. It's not a musical, but the occasional use of music adds another layer to the storytelling. Ensemble member Kimberly Richardson also provided the movement and choreography, a fun mix of modern and traditional court dances. I can only imagine that this play comes into the often dark places where TTT performs out in the community and brings a bright ray of light and hope.

TTT typically performs with minimal sets and costumes, but this is one of the most elaborate costume designs I've seen them use - three full racks of clothing sit on the sides of the room. Each cast member has a base of black pants and shirt, with gorgeous but relatively minimalist Elizabethan gowns, tunics, and jackets put on over them. The skirts are often open in front, allowing for easy changing, while taking nothing away from the look. The Emilias are dressed in slightly different but coordinating dresses of blue with brocade, and each of the ladies or houses has a different color scheme. The most elaborate part of the set is a clothesline stretched across the stage in a couple different scenes. A stately wooden chair and desk, a set of shelves with interesting props, and various sized crates, buckets, and barrels complete the set. (Costume design by Sarah Bahr, set and prop design by Sarah Brandner.

Emilia continues through June 11 at Open Book in downtown Minneapolis as well as other locations around the Twin Cities (click here for the full schedule). Ten Thousand Things shows are always must-sees, but this one feels particularly special.