Sean Dugan and Stafford Clark-Price
in The English Channel
(© Kim T. Sharp)
Sean Dugan and Stafford Clark-Price
in The English Channel
(© Kim T. Sharp)
Many prominent scholars and historians have postulated that William Shakespeare did not write his own plays, speculating that their true author was everyone from his lauded contemporary Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth I. Robert Brustein's The English Channel, making its New York premiere at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, plays with this idea in often delightful fashion.

Set in 1593, the year the Black Plague shut down the theaters, the action revolves around Will (Stafford Clark-Price), his friend Christopher "Kit" Marlowe (Sean Dugan), his patron Henry "Hal" Wriothesley, the Earl of Southhampton (Brian Robert Burns), and his lover Emilia Lanier (Lori Gardner), who several scholars have theorized was Shakespeare's "Dark Lady," and is depicted as such within Brustein's play.

The blurry distinction between inspiration and outright theft is the subject of the work. The dialogue is filled with many familiar lines from Will's yet-to-be penned plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello, which are spoken by various characters -- and are likely to send the still neophyte playwright to his writing table so that he can jot down an idea or phrase. Brustein suggests that Shakespeare was influenced by those around him whom he "channeled" in the act of writing, but still had language and ideas of his own.

The plot is also filled with danger, romance, and betrayal as it interpolates historical fact and speculation involving Kit's secondary career as a spy and Hal's treasonous plot with the Earl of Essex against the queen. Add in sexual liaisons between Hal and Kit, Will and Emilia, Emilia and Hal, as well as erotic tension between Hal and Will, and the stakes are raised, jealousy runs rampant, and tragic consequences are inevitable.

Unfortunately, the play misfires in a framing sequence involving the ghost of Marlowe, and a possibly Faustian bargain that gets struck. Not only does it undermine some of the play's more interesting speculations on Shakespeare's writing process, it leads to one of the more absurd and badly acted sequences that has Will launching into some of the more famous speeches he has yet to write in rapid-fire succession.

Aside from this moment, Clark-Price does a fine job in capturing Will's enthusiasm, petulance, anxiety, and sexual confusion. Dugan is a treat, brimming with charisma and commanding the stage in nearly all of his appearances. (There is one scene, where Kit is drunk, that feels too forced.) Burns plays Hal too broadly, indicating his intentions and lacking the stage presence necessary to convince the audience that he is the inspiration for not only some of Shakespeare's most well known sonnets, but the poetry of many others (including Marlowe). It's difficult to judge Gardner's merits, as she had only just recently stepped into the role originally to be portrayed by Rosal Colon, and was still on book at the performance I attended. Her facility with the language is a good indicator that she will eventually inhabit the part more fully, but her lack of chemistry with Clark-Price is a problem that may not be able to be surmounted.

Director Daniela Varon could do a little bit more to tone down the production's more melodramatic flourishes, but she paces the action briskly, and allows the play's humor and wit to shine through.