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From its writing, direction and design to its pair of tour de force performances, Lunchbox Theatre’s The Dark Lady is a triumph.
This co-production with The Shakespeare Company, running in the Vertigo Studio Theatre until Oct. 29, is must-see theatrical wizardry.
Ontario playwright Jessica B. Hill hypothesizes that Elizabethan musician and poet Emilia Bassano was not only the inspiration for Shakespeare’s love sonnets, his muse and collaborator on his later plays, but ultimately his lover.
It’s a tricky thesis but Hill’s writing is so vibrant and compelling, it’s not just easy, but great fun to be won over to her premise. She may have set the play in Elizabethan England, but her language makes Bassano and Shakespeare seem wildly contemporary.
Shakespeare meets Bassano at a production of his comedy Two Gentlemen of Verona, so probably around 1589, and we meet, with her, at his grave in 1616, so the play covers close to 30 years of what we’re meant to believe was a love affair as turbulent and fiery as it was passionate and intellectually stimulating.
Bassano wanted desperately to be published, but that was not an option for women of her time. She saw the ideas she fed Shakespeare appear in his works, but that wasn’t satisfying enough. She felt she was an equal, and wanted to be treated as such. It caused many a rift in their otherwise all-consuming relationship. Watching this power struggle play out in their courtship is what gives The Dark Lady both its humour and its heart. This is one of those wonderful plays where tears of laughter and joy become tears of pain and sorrow.
Natascha Girgis is positively radiant as Bassano. She’s not just a force of nature for Luigi Riscaldino’s Shakespeare, but for the audience as well. Her jibes can be like daggers, and they never fail to elicit the intended laughter, but she drags up so much heartfelt emotion whenever Bassano is compromised. This is the kind of role that gives Girgis the challenges she relishes as one of Calgary’s finest actors.
Riscaldino proves a worthy sparring partner for Girgis. They are like the lovers Petruchio and Katherina from The Taming of the Shrew, or Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing, which is what Hill would like us to surmise, that those fictional lovers were simply art mirroring life.
Bassano keeps telling Shakespeare he is shortchanging his female characters. To prove this, she suggests they change clothes, so he can see firsthand how it feels to be minimalized. It’s such a hilarious scene, but also most insightful, especially in the hands of these two skilled actors.
With Persian rugs on the floor, pages of Shakespeare’s scripts, Bassano’s poems and letters for its walls, and a few blocks and semi-circles that become everything from chairs to gravestones, Madeline Blondal’s set is a marvel. Rebecca Toon’s costumes establish the period but also work little miracles that greatly enhance the play.
The audience sits on three sides of the set, and director Bronwyn Steinberg makes sure the action plays to all sides equally, and she ensures there is as much energy in the staging as there is in the dialogue.
The play runs 80 minutes, though it feels far less. Because this is a co-production with The Shakespeare Company, Lunchbox has added extra evening performances on Fridays, Saturdays and Wednesdays to accommodate that company’s subscriber base.
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