It takes chutzpah for a playwright to tackle Shakespeare not as a topic or a template, but as a flesh-and-blood historical character. Robert Brustein—the polymath who founded Yale Rep and American Repertory Theatre, taught drama and reviewed it for The New Republic—has the requisite stature and fearlessness, no question. But while The English Channel, Brustein’s play about a sticky patch in the Bard’s early career, contains a store of delicious, allusive wordplay, what it fatally lacks is freshness and friction.
We meet young Will (bestubbled, diffident Stafford Clark-Price) in transition between his beginning efforts, mostly histories and farces, and the towering masterpieces to come. When he’s not scribbling his deathless sonnets, he transcribes—in what passes for a running gag—stray comments from his oddly quotable visitors. “If music be the food of love, play on,” arrives courtesy of Hal (Brian Robert Burns), a flouncy nobleman and sometime patron to whom Will addresses several poems. Jealousy as “the green-eyed monster”? Why, that’s an offhanded rebuke from Emilia Lanier (Lori Gardner), a poet some believe served as the Bard’s legendary “Dark Lady,” on hand here to fill the crucial role of feisty proto-feminist bed buddy. “What is a woman’s body to you?” she’d like to know. Given the way Will swoons at pretty young Hal, we wonder, too.
Crude, crotch-grabbing Christopher Marlowe (Sean Dugan, excellent) has the play’s best, most clarifying lines and its single finest moment: After devouring a capon at his colleague’s desk, he absentmindedly uses a sonnet fragment as a napkin. An inspired bit like that is worth a thousand immortal couplets.