In a year in which conservatism has taken over theatrical production, it seems reasonable that even the fringe would want to go but the tried but true – in this case, the “big name” (Shakespeare) with a hint of controversy (but is it by him or is it not?). This time, however, Phil Wilmott has gone not for a “possibly by Shakespeare” show (well, actually King John seems to be fairly secure in its authorship, it’s just not produced much), but a “well it was once in a pile of plays labeled “Shakespeare” so let’s see if this pulls in the punters” title. “Fair Em” ISN’T thought to be by Shakespeare by ANYONE. It is, however, quite reasonable to describe it as a show having its ” modern world premiere” in 2013. And why would this be? I will attempt to clarify in as simple a way as possible – by summarizing the plot.
So, there’s a really pretty girl, named Em (Caroline Haines). She is of noble birth but she and her father are pretending to be millers because of the political changes caused by the invasion of William the Conqueror (Jack Taylor). Being noble, and thus beautiful, Em has attracted suitors above her station – three, in fact. But wait, let’s not forget William the Conqueror. He is also in love – with a woman whose face he saw on someone’s shield. It’s Blanch (Madeline Gould in a comically horned headpiece), daughter of the king of Denmark! He goes there in disguise to woo her, but then falls in love with Mariana (Alys Metcalf), who has promised to wed another. Meanwhile, Em is struggling to deal with her suitors’ competition with each other, and in order to prove herself faithful to her first love, pretends to be deaf and blind to scare off the others, with the comic result that …
Are you lost yet? I promise you will be, even despite the costumes that attempt to keep you cleverly focused on PEOPLE IN DENMARK and POOR YET NOBLE MAKE BELIEVE DEAF GIRL wait DEAF AND BLIND GIRL wait BLIND GIRL wait … and then there’s some sort of a battle and … oh God, it was really all too much. As a bit of Elizabethan theater, Fair Em was like the Dumb and Dumber of its age – no doubt enjoyable at the time but my God, it just did not age well. Or maybe I just go to too much highbrow stuff – I mean, I wound up here because the Shaw triple bill at the Red Lion was sold out. But, you know, um … nice backdrop, and I do think the actors were really giving it their all. Perhaps we might dub this “cringe theater?”
(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, January 12, 2013. Fair Em continues through February 9th at the Union Theater.)