It’s About This Guy Named Shakespeare

Next Act's rollicking production of "God's Spies" has fun with Shakespeare, "King Lear" and bawdy old England.

By - May 1st, 2023 01:47 pm
Eva Nimmer, Zach Thomas Woods, Mark Ulrich. Photo by Ross Zentner.

Eva Nimmer, Zach Thomas Woods, Mark Ulrich. Photo by Ross Zentner.

It may be part of Wisconsin’s festival of world premieres, but it also feels like a welcome old friend in playwright and Jesuit Bill Cain. His impish and lucid irreverence, seen in past plays, tackles one of his favorite subjects and times, that of Shakespeare, in the comedic God’s Spies through May 21 at the Next Act Theatre.

Cain has also written about modern crime and war and he has a contemporary feel for the quips and insights about 1603 in the dregs of London as the plague consumes the poorest parts of the city and closes its theaters, sending the new King James fleeing back to Scotland. Cain has invented a circumstance much like the old joke about the priest, the rabbi and the minister walking into a bar.

Here it is a prostitute who runs the bawdy house, a young Scottish lawyer torn between piety and carnality and a playwright called Shax trying to scribble out a new play called “King Lear” under these enclosed quarantined conditions.

Actor Mark Ulrich gives us the theatrical, cynical but romantic figure of Shakespeare, clodding around demanding attention – to which he adds a lot of humor and heart. This Shax – the name is a bow to his notoriously unreadable handwriting – is manic to keep writing but grudgingly finds the two commoners he is stuck with offering some of the best insights into his plays.

With tongue firmly in cheek but also exploring the humanity inside the playwright, Cain is offering some provocative scholarship into Shakespeare and his times. He has also drawn an interesting parallel to Lear’s fury at nature (Shakespeare and friends writing the play during a plague) to modern audiences remembering their own feelings when COVID took root in 2019.

As Edgar, Zach Thomas Woods is a physical delight, offering a Scottish burr so thick that we laugh and then making sure the brogue cleans up just enough to land the jokes. His alternating ferocity about the evils of theater and the lure of sex provides antic interludes. From fear of catching the plague to actually enduring it, he electrifies the stage but he’s almost as much fun when forced into ridiculous gymnastics as Shakespeare’s angry scrivener.

Standing over all of them is the bawd of the house, Eva Nimmer as Ruth, eager to take money for sexual favors but not for the fruits of her mind.

She is everywoman in a way, almost the nice girl caught in an unsavory profession and in a time when females were subordinate – or invisible as the play suggests. Yet she cleans the house, nurses the men, openly tempts, bosses the lawyer and the playwright and analyzes Shakespeare’s writings as if she could read and write.

This is not so much a character as a womanly force of nature and Nimmer does it charmingly, nailing the repartee. She even has to be the reminder that, as Cain observes, while the Bard piled up corpses at the end of his plays, those same actors get up afterward to dance a finale.

The play is much like this – grabbing hold of us in a whirl of words and actions while one part of our brain openly enjoys it yet knows this is all invention. Cain, much like George Bernard Shaw, has laced his play with erudite arguments and jests – balls floating in the air so captivatingly that we never question why or how this special isolation has been created.

There is clever supporting help from scene designer Rick Rasmussen, costumes by Amelia Strahan and other veteran hands on the tech crew, to which we must add properties expert Abbey Pitchford who keeps the quills, clothes, parchment paper and wine jugs flowing as the plague howls outside and Lear howls within.

The most impressive contribution to this production, intended as a gift to the patrons and to his favorite playwright, is its direction by David Cecsarini, who after three decades has happily handed over the artistic reins at Next Act to Cody Estle. So much of the movement, the speed, the bounce and jests of the language offer Cecsarini an excellent parting shot. Yes, it’s the theater’s final show of his final season, and he has to be relishing how well the cast manages his instructions.

God’s Spies Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blogs here and here.

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