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M. George Stevenson

Dark Lady Players' "Midsummer"


March 28 to April 1
Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 W. 36th St., first floor.
Presented by the Dark Lady Players
Wed-Sat at 8:00 pm, Matinees Sat and Sun at 3:00 pm
$16 general admission. Ticketing: SMARTTIX (212) 868-4444, www.smarttix.com
Runs 75 minutes.
(This play is not a production of The Abingdon Theater Company, Inc.)

''A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' Photo by Koen Machielse

For most of us, upon hearing ''A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' our next thought isn't, ''Oh, a comic Jewish satire.'' According to a new theory of theprovenance of the Shakespeare plays offered by British polymath John Hudson, however, that association should be automatic and, trumping the strategies of most who advance arguments in what Bardolators know as the ''Authorship Controversy,'' they're putting on a show to prove it.

This week, the Dark Lady Players, an almost entirely female group of actors under the direction of Mahayana Landowne, are playing Mr. Hudson's edition of ''A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Comic Jewish Satire'' to highlight the text, subtexts, and intertexts that show how such familiar characters as Puck, Bottom, Peter Quince and Fairy King and Queen Oberon and Titania are in fact a complex allegory about the falsity of the Gospels that was concocted by a ex-lover of Christopher Marlowe named Amelia Bassano Lanyer, a woman who is also the Dark Lady of the Sonnets and the first woman in England to publish poetry under he own name.

Author John Hudson. Photo by Koen Machielse.

Say what? According to Mr. Hudson, a cognitive scientist-turned-literary scholar in the final stages of publishing a biography of Bassano entitled ''The Dark Lady,'' what we know as the plays of William Shakespeare were in fact works written by Bassano, a just-younger contemporary of the theatrical producer ''William Shagspere'' (per an authenticated Shakespeare signature). Because she was a Jewish woman of color (i.e. Sephardic) in the police state that was Elizabethan London, he argues, she could not sign such works under her own name and so let ''Shagspere'' front for her as playwright and his company -- one of the few who enjoyed royal favor and, thus, protection -- perform them.

There is a long history of theories arguing that a rustic, grammar-school-educated son of a glover could not be the divine Bard of Avon. The first doubters began airing their disbeliefs about 60 years after Shakespeare's death and 80-some potential candidates have been put forward; Henry James, Sigmund Freud, and Orson Welles, for example, all believed that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays. Nor is Mr. Hudson's the first to suggest that the Bard was a woman: Harold Bloom stipulated in his contribution to Harper's Magazine's April 1999 ''Folio: The Ghost of Shakespeare'' that Lucy Negro, ''Elizabethan England's most celebrated East Indian whore'' was the author because her ''multicultural, feminist and post-colonial'' identity enables us to read Shakespeare with political correctness.

But what Mr. Hudson's case has that other theories lack (and I say this as a devout ''Stratfordian,'' one who believes ''Shagspere'' wrote Shakespeare) is not just temporal plausibility -- most of the standard candidates died long before the last original Shakespeare play was licensed for production, whereas Amelia Bassano outlived him by some 30 years: Unlike the anti-Stratfordians who clutch their pearls at the idea that a low-born country bumpkin was the greatest writer of all time and seek a more socially acceptable author, Mr. Hudson was doing graduate work on Biblical typologies in the plays and found that there was a good deal that was not only not Catholic (Hudson subscribes to the recent scholarship suggesting that ''Shagspere'' was among Elizabethan England's Roman refuseniks), but actively Jewish.

A scene in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' Photo by Koen Machielse.

''When I realized that it did not fit Christian theology and that it was Jewish,'' he says, ''I thought, ‘Who would write this?' And there was only one candidate who was both Jewish and a major poet.'' What Mr. Hudson found in Bassano was not only a treasure trove of literary and social coincidences too numerous or technical to go into here, but also a temporal conundrum to give Stratfordians pause: lines added to ''Othello'' and ''Richard III'' some six years after ''Shagspere's'' death that feature both Jewish themes and the name Amelia. ''I can't imagine those bits of papers were left separate from the quartos [the original publication manuscripts] and just left lying around, when all the additions add to the Jewish satire,'' Mr. Hudson says.

Mr. Hudson's commitment to demonstrating how central the satire is to ''A Midsummer Night's Dream'' led him to form the Dark Lady Players, initially via a series of workshops. The chief task was finding a way to, as Mr. Hudson puts it, ''Let the audience see with Elizabethan eyes. It's similar to what [actor/director] Mark Rylance is doing at the Globe [Theater in London], building on what he's done. We're not adding 12-foot fairies or 20-foot chandeliers, just simple Renaissance conventions of illustrating the text that were lost in the transition to the more naturalistic style of the proscenium stage.

''Nobody could have performed the allegory in Elizabethan times because they would have been killed as traitors,'' Mr. Hudson adds. ''But the allegories are easily playable within the conventions of [medieval] mystery plays and, later, [Bertolt] Brecht.''

Assistant director Jenny Greeman sees what they're doing as ''trying to bring [Mr. Hudson's] footnotes to life: ‘Look! An intertextual reference!' There's a lot of signage, which is a fun, visual way to put a spotlight on the references to poets and mythology and, certainly, the Bible.'' It's completely different from modern, internalized techniques of acting, she says, ''but I've always had a suspicion that [those approaches] didn't work for Shakespeare anyway. It's too verbal; there's no fourth wall. So it's been freeing to be told you must work in a more presentational form.''

Mr. Hudson is almost certainly the first Authorship Controversy theorist to put his research literally on its feet: However much Orson Welles may have believed in the Earl of Oxford theory, there was nothing ''Oxfordian'' about his Shakespeare productions. For Mr. Hudson, it's simply as another part of the research process. ''I don't pretend to do anything other than start a new line of inquiry,'' he says. ''There's an immense amount of work left to do, but it's a good start.''

A scene in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' Photo by Koen Machielse.

So far, he's pleased with the results: ''I'm very, very happy with the actors we have. They're very young and not being paid but they do believe in it. The quality of the acting, because they know what we're talking about, is very, very good and we've only been together a few months.'' /His vision includes more performances of the current production -- scenes from which they played last week at Mr. Hudson's lecture on the Bassano theory at the Smithsonian Institution -- and beginning workshops for a future version of ''The Tempest.''

Ms. Greeman sees what they're doing as ''using our theatrical knowledge to try to bring to life what John has discovered. If you're playing Titus Caesar [according to Mr. Hudson's allegorical reading, Fairy Queen Titania represents the Roman Emperor Titus], it's going to inform your body movement in a much different way than if you‚re playing Titania with a pink dress and a tiara.'' Still, she offers, ''The main difference is working on such a familiar piece of material in a completely different way, and it's been amazing how we've been able to find them so easily – it's [started to seem] odd that it's not what everyone's doing with this play.''

© M. George Stevenson

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