In Sonnet 129, Shakespeare wrote "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action" and that 'waste of shame' is the very thing that the love-struck woman in Phaedra's Bed sets out to confront. The Bard went on to say, "and till action, lust/ Is perjur'd, murderous, bloody, full of blame,/Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;" which pretty much describes the ambitious, star-crazed thespians in Unsex'd. I won't try to fit the fantastical aspirations of nine-year old prodigy Dylan, the protagonist of Understudy, into Shakespeare's poem. I will just say that, by one of those happy accidents that often occurs at the Fringe, I saw three plays in one evening that were strongly connected thematically, while being wildly different in style and substance. Much to my delight, they were all three excellent!
All three plays deal with sex, sexuality, gender, and performance. In Phaedra's Bed the performance aspect is social; the playing out of a public persona while about you gossips are whispering your shameful secrets. In Understudy, Dylan yearns for the love of his mother and the admiration of his fellow 4th-graders. His precocious genius makes him yearn to play Tennesee Williams heroines or to be Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, yet finds itself confined to the role of Sheep No. 11 in the annual Christmas pageant. Unsex'd takes us backstage at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre where the Bard's best boy actor may be aging faster than his capacity to play leading ladies can withstand. Apparently sexual versatility and backstage bitchery, not to mention secret sorcery, were all just part of a 16th century actor's craft!
Halifax's DaPoPo Theatre is presenting Phaedra's Bed and it features two of their leading lights. Kim Parkhill is the writer/performer and Garry Williams is director/dramaturg. While the play takes inspiration from the classical myth of Phaedra ( a queen in desperate love with her husband's younger son), and draws on both Euripdes and Racine, it is more concerned with contemporary issues around women's sexuality. Kim Parkhill is outstanding, as is Garry Williams' direction. The piece flows with rhythm, advancing and falling away like a storm at sea, only to rise again in a thundering climax. Kudos must go the elegant technical support of lighting and sound designers Evan Brown and Connor Josey. Phaedra's Bed was a beautiful production with which to begin my Fringe experience. Its message of honesty, ownership and pride in one's sexuality will resonate strongly with queer theatregoers of any gender identity.
Beyond stronly urging everyone to go and see it, I really don't want to say too much more about Understudy, chiefly in the hope that the play may unfold as a delightful surprise for others, as it did for me. Gillian Clark was unknown to me as a writer or performer, and every twist and turn of young Dylan's complicated life came as an unexpected revelation; there were moments when I was absolutely on the edge of my seat. The play is by turns funny (very!), sweet, sad, and nail-bitingly scary. Nine year old Dylan may just be my new queer hero!
If I only had one word with which to praise Unsex'd it would a be big loud & proud "Fabulous!" As camp as Liberace, as bitchy as Bette Davis, and as smart as, well ... Shakespeare! Unsex'd is a romp, worthy of Charles Ludlam or Sky Gilbert, at their very best. The plot is straight from, er, that is to say ... gayly derived from All About Eve and takes aim at every famous Shakespearean line with more gleefully outrageous puns than I ever dreamed one play could hold. With a great scrpt by Daniel Judes and Jay Whitehead; grand comic performances from Jay Whitehead and Adam Beauchesne; fast and tempo furioso direction from Richie Wilcox, and a terrific sounsdscape from Aaron Collier, Unsex'd is as fun as fun itself!
Unlike the conclusion of Shakespeare's Sonnet, where he clearly wishes that he (and his readers) might learn to avoid lust, "the heaven that leads men to this hell" I heartily encourage you to pursue all three of these lusty theatrical delights.
For detailed information about these plays, the full schedule and Box Office information check out the Atlantic Fringe Festival website.