“A woman who speaks out survives.” So says Margaret of Anjou in She Is Fierce, a play not by Shakespeare. Margaret of Anjou is portrayed with ferocity by Sam Reiter in Enso Theatre Ensemble’s production at Shoebox Theatre.
Bitter irony lies at the heart of that statement, as spoken by the mother of Edward, Prince of Wales (killed by Richard III in the fifteenth century), in a modern-day retelling of Richard III from an all-female perspective, with Lady Anne of York at the center.
We all know what happens to Lady Anne, after all, in Shakespeare’s version of events: She dies miserably, married to the man who killed her husband.
In this production at Enso, originally produced by the Netherlands’ Het Vijfde Bedrijf (The Fifth Act) and adapted from the work of Dutch playwrights Maaike Bergstra and Annemarie de Bruijn, the women take center stage. There are four characters: In addition to Sam Bangs, the Lady Anne who introduces us to the play – in fact, invites us in from the exhibit in the lobby, also known as Lady Anne’s Gallery of Secrets – they are:
- Margaret of Anjou, the mother of Lady Anne’s first husband, and the fiercest character of the play
- The Duchess of York (Paige Rogers), Richard III’s mother, who deeply regrets the way her foul son turns out
- Young Anne (Hannah Hogan), who acts out the early days with Richard from Lady Anne’s memories.
The lighting, by Kelly Terry – especially in that first moment when you step foot in the tiny Shoebox space, with three ghost-like women sitting still on the stage, bathed in white light – and simple set and prop design by Jordan Mackey (a sandbox of sorts, like an overgrown zen garden with three black hexagonal boxes replacing the smooth stones, used as seats, pulpits, and podiums throughout) are used to serve as background to these four women’s powerful performances.
You might wonder how Richard is present in a play with no men, and it’s a good question: He is mostly spoken of, or imagined, or a voice offstage (Tim Fodge, helped by the effective sound design of Cooper Poole). Puppets and shadows also play a part – and leave a lasting impression.
That this sort-of-a-version-of-Richard III stars only women – and that it takes place in the midst of the #MeToo movement – gives Shakespeare’s words even more power, if these memorable lines can be even more powerful:
“I had an Edward until a Richard killed him.
I had a husband until a Richard killed him.
You had an Edward until a Richard killed him.
You had a Richard until a Richard killed him.”
The tricky part, though, is trying to make sense of something that most of us can’t ever understand: why Lady Anne would marry the man who killed her husband, accepting his proposal at the funeral of her beloved father-in-law. Bangs does a remarkable job of giving this character strength – she embodies the “fierce” in the title. But it’s an impossible undertaking to make her actions relatable or sympathetic, especially when that is done by having her profess how she came to love him so much. In some sense, this explanation is anti-feminism painted as feminism. Sure, she says, she started out seeking revenge, but soon she fell madly in needy love with the man who is actively poisoning her.
But Bangs is magnetic and a force to be reckoned with, gloriously equaled by the other three actors who share the stage. Hogan, a newcomer to the professional stage, is particularly impressive. She acts out a scene of sexual assault that will leave you feeling real fear, despite there being no Richard onstage. And she has a lovely singing voice.
As the tagline “a play not by Shakespeare” lets us all in on, this is not Shakespeare: It leaves far less room for interpretation, and has less nuance. Shakespeare’s own depictions of women were far ahead of his time and ever timely, and they don’t direct audiences quite so obviously as She Is Fierce does to think or react in a certain way. And the purist in me can’t help pointing out that Shakespeare’s “she is fierce” line was not from Richard III, or even a history. Helena said of Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”
All of that said, this is an ambitious, innovative, and intimate take on Richard III that is welcome and relevant in our modern world. And as directed by Joellen Sweeney, it’s entertaining – from the moment you step into the lobby, you become part of the production, which will transfix you for the next 70 minutes.
Enso Theatre Ensemble’s She Is Fierce continues through March 31 at the Shoebox Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.