Theater Review: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets & The Upstart Crow

Will Storrs, left, and Scott Bean. Photo by Rodney Smith, Tempus Fugit Design

For those turned off by classical theater, Montford Park Players 44th season opener, staged at the gorgeous Masonic Temple, may change their outlook altogether. An Evening Celebrating Shakespeare includes the one-act plays The Dark Lady of the Sonnets by George Bernard Shaw and The Upstart Crow by Vincent Dowling.

Both plays are cleverly stitched together by director Scott Keel, and although it may be perplexing at first, stay with it. Revealing anymore about this brilliant craftsmanship would spoil the surprise.

The evening starts with the parody The Dark Lady of the Sonnets. In 16th century London, Shakespeare attempts to meet his girlfriend, The Dark Lady, on the sly, but is halted near the palace gates by Beefeater the guard. A cloaked woman arrives but is soon revealed to be none other than Queen Elizabeth who Shakespeare immediately crushes on.

All of the actors are engaging from the get go. Will Storrs makes a believably lovelorn Shakespeare, sharing tongue-in-cheek banter with Beefeater, played by Keel. However, the standouts are Scott Bean as Queen Elizabeth and especially a shy-yet-haunted Haven Volpe in a small but pivotal role as The Dark Lady. Bean’s amazing scenery-chewing presence dominates with no trouble, but Volpe’s beautifully subdued and androgynous performance was too often lost behind other actors on a tight platform. This could be prevented with more use of the lower stage floor to open up the blocking.

The crux of the evening is spent with The Upstart Crow. The play begins sometime after Shakespeare’s death when his daughter, Susannah, wanders into the Globe Theatre. On a desperate quest to find resolve, she bombards Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s friend and famous actor, with questions. Richard uses passages from Shakespeare’s works to guide Susannah toward the answers. But will she ever truly understand why her father abandoned his family, and how will she ever learn to forgive him?

Leads Trinity Smith as Susannah and Darren Marshall as Richard give two of the best local stage performances in recent memory. Their commitment to these characters deserves major admiration. Smith commands the room like a pro, honing Desdemona’s vulnerability, Lady Macbeth’s wrath, Ophelia’s insanity and Juliet’s lost youth. These are all women of Shakespeare, and Smith perfectly entangles them together into one whole character. Smith is absolutely fantastic and a force to be reckoned with.

Marshall and Smith’s connection is undeniable. Their most beautiful moment together is when Susannah kisses a very real tear rolling down Richard’s cheek. Marshall conveys the deep pain of losing a best friend with purpose. Accurately channeling such loss isn’t easy. It takes a remarkably courageous actor to wear his wounded heart on his sleeve. Marshall is magnificent in a role he calls “his favorite” and it shows.

By the end, the weeping audience had successfully traveled to another time period. (The lovely movie Shakespeare In Love accomplished something similar.) Sometimes period pieces can feel contrived, but these actors are motivated by a strong director. There’s certainly something special between everyone connected with this show.

Worth noting: Montford Park Players always keeps a watchful eye on their costume design and Victoria Smith has done a great job here. Devyn Ray’s makeup design is also splendid.

Sometimes a viewer can catch a feeling from a production the moment he or she walks through the door. An Evening Celebrating Shakespeare: The Dark Lady Of The Sonnets & The Upstart Crow gives off a positive vibe. John Russell, managing director of the Montford Park Players, delivered a very welcoming curtain speech during which he explained that all shows this season would be by donation only. What a bargain, considering how polished and nearly flawless this production is.

WHAT: An Evening Celebrating Shakespeare: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets & The Upstart Crow
WHERE: Asheville Masonic Temple, 80 Broadway St.montfordparkplayers.org WHEN: Fridays and Saturdays April 1, 2, 8 and 9, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 3, at 2:30 p.m. By donation.

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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3 thoughts on “Theater Review: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets & The Upstart Crow

  1. Big Al

    Great show! I was pleasantly surprised how one play flowed into the other, as if “Dark Lady…” had been an actual work by Shakespeare, then Burbage went from speaking with “his” actors to beginning his own story in “Upstart Crow”. All performances were excellent, but Darren Marshall was at his best. He is truly a local treasure.

    I know the season has arrived for the MPP to shift into their own “Globe Theater” in Hazel Robinson Amphitheater, but I hope they continue to perform at the Masonic Lodge occasionally between now and Fall. It is becoming a new favorite venue of mine (except for the old seats, which are a bit low and narrow for my taste).

    • Kai Elijah Hamilton

      Thanks for commenting Big Al. Happy you enjoyed the show.

  2. Jack B Nimble

    I am not sure what performance this reviewer saw! “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets” appeared to have no director whatsoever. Scott Bean’s highly stylized (never scenery-chewing, which is typically a negative epithet) Queen Elizabeth was fascinating, the highlight of the entire evening. Bean’s performance and blocking (with a physical precision reminiscent of the dance of figurines on a cuckoo-clock) hinted at a concept where this play-within-a-play was presented in a heightened style that would have seemed as “staged” to Shakespeare’s contemporaries as the Bard’s plays are to us. I wish I could have seen the rest of that play, because what I did see was a disjointed mess. Keel’s Beefeater was charming, witty, and had good physical consciousness – but his decision to speak with a British accent (no matter how ably done) was inexplicable. (Yes, Beefeaters are British – but so is Queen Elizabeth!) Volpe’s well-intentioned Dark Lady was mumble-mouthed and inaudible, swallowing lines whole while using only his face to act. A quick diction lesson would have improved his performance immeasurably. Will Storrs’ Shakespeare was jarringly modern in speech and physicality, while Storrs seemed not to understand his lines sufficiently to convey their sense to an audience. The four actors appeared to be putting on four different plays, with no unity of style or purpose – something a “strong” director (or even just a capable one) should have been able to achieve. Meanwhile, the crux of Shaw’s work, a plea for a National Theater to present works that edify rather than pander to commercial demand, resonates neither with Shakespeare’s time nor ours, leaving the audience to wonder why Keel chose to present this piece – and present it so strangely – at all…beyond, that is, creating a neat transition into “The Upstart Crow.”

    “The Upstart Crow” is a psychoanalytic, maudlin exploration of Will Shakespeare the man and playwright, written by someone aware (alas, insufficiently so!) that his words are a poor match for the Bard’s. The result reveals with stunning clarity the modern play’s lack of wit, imagery, or ambition. Trinity Smith and Darren Marshall, two talented actors in search of a director, are willing to follow the text’s lachrymose iterations from blame to regret and back again; unfortunately for them, good theater doesn’t automatically happen when an audience bears witness to actors’ indulgent emotional self-flagellation; good theater happens when actors make an AUDIENCE feel something – other than boredom, that is. Obviously well-trained and more than capable at handling Shakespeare’s text, Marshall and Smith shine while presenting soliloquies, which (particularly in Acts I and II) were often transcendent (despite Smith, Keel’s wife, performing while maintaining her best Lady Edith Crawley impersonation—another seemingly undirected choice, and a jarring contrast with Marshall’s Standard American accent). Unfortunately, the excerpts are couched in a framing story that had Marshall and Smith alternately raging and weeping for an hour and a half over questions that matter to precisely no one. (Boo hoo! Shakespeare abandoned his family and took lovers! But he was an artist, so did it matter? Whoops, turns out the playwright doesn’t know and is unwilling to offer an opinion, so the characters will rage and weep on, and on and on, until the playwright runs out of fun speeches he wants to excerpt.) Having moved themselves to tears and shouting in the second act, by the third the actors have nowhere else to go, and everything suffers as a consequence: imagery, lines (dropping sections of Hamlet’s tribute to Yorick was unfortunate), and sense. Perhaps a skilled director could have preserved his actors’ (and his audience’s!) stamina by finding more emotional variation in this piece – carving out much-needed opportunities for levity and thereby creating space for emotional growth in his characters – but Keel didn’t manage it. Is this the best theater Asheville has to offer? I sincerely hope not.

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