And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies
by Jeff Grygny
Who are the invisible people? They’re the ones we never see because we never look at them. The housekeepers, the janitors, the panhandlers. Invisibility is one of the many themes in Bill Cain’s lively Elizabethan fantasy Gods Spies, which is currently receiving its world premiere at Next Act Theater as part of the World Premiere Wisconsin initiative.
Cain seems obsessed with Shakespeare’s later plays. His Equivocation dealt with the complex political intrigue behind the writing of Macbeth. The Last White Man scrutinized Hamlet through the lens of identity politics. Now, in God’ Spies, Cain processes the complex feelings around our recent collective experience of pandemic and loss, along with a few other things, including: the patriarchy, fundamentalist hypocrisy, inequality, dispossession, and the creative process— all in the setting of a London brothel. And he takes time to fill it with good-natured gags about Scottish accents, Shakespeare’s terrible penmanship, male cluelessness, and a certain village with a very long name.
King Lear has often been considered the greatest play ever written. The product of a master dramatist at the height of his powers, it takes on an even longer list of interwoven themes, in a story that might be a fairy tale but has also been adapted into modern settings, and, in Shakespeare’s way, remains surprising, even shocking, and unfathomably rich to this day. In God’s Spies, we meet the playwright in the middle of his work, suddenly trapped in a house where doxies bring their clients after their theater “dates.” He enters in full plague gear, as the town has just broken out, interrupting an argument between local strumpet Ruth, and her reluctant patron, a Scots lawyer named Edgar, who curses the hour he set foot in a theater and lost his soul to the lusts of the flesh. As none of them are allowed to leave, Shakespeare (“Shax,” as he’s called here, because of the odd way he writes his name), continues his project. It turns out the Ruth is very canny about the theater, having seen every play multiple times whilst on the job, while Edgar has beautiful handwriting, and the three shut-ins gradually become collaborators.
Writing doesn’t generally make the most compelling theater, and Cain finds many ingenious ways to draw us in to scenes of a man sitting at a table with pen and paper. So we have dramatic enactments, arguments, revelations, an impromptu ear-piercing, and eroticism—including an incident of casual bisexuality that comes out of nowhere and quickly goes back there. Director David Cecsarini keeps the action moving with Ruth’s compulsive cleaning—a detail that’s quite familiar to us after our own recent plague. Mark Ulrich, obviously having great fun with the role of Shax, lights up the stage with a full-bodied characterization, bringing good-natured intelligence, charisma, and an endearing quirkiness that reminds us of certain brilliant theater artists we have known, with the facial ticks and grimaces of a mind so quick that it can’t help but escape the body in little electric jolts.
As Edgar, Zach Thomas Woods shows a vulnerable, confused young man behind a burr thick enough to stand a spoon up in. And Eva Nimmer brings grace and humanity to a role that’s heavily weighted with thematic importance: as a prostitute, she’s the lowest of the low, but like Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s sister,” she’s just as insightful and talented as Will, while also a practical genius at surviving; a resourceful provider, a healer, and the unrecognized hero who saves King Lear for posterity. But don’t expect her to play the games of the stereotypical trollop; she is very much a clear-headed businesswoman. Just as Lear recognizes the poor and destitute among his subjects, so Shax comes to understand the value of ” invisible” people like Ruth.
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this.
King Lear Act 3 scene 4
One figure conspicuously absent in the play is Lear himself. Kings are not in vogue these days, to put it mildly. While so many literary classics are being “interrogated” by contemporary critics, Bill Cain seems intent on making sure these plays remain fresh, alive, and relevant. He leans right into the controversy. Best of all, he’s not reverent: his meditations aren’t dour theses, but borderline farces with escalatingly improbable developments that veer close to campiness. And this is all for the better. God’s Spies is a feast for Shakespeare buffs, and greatly entertaining for everyone else.I can’t wait for him to venture into the ideological mine field that is The Tempest next.
Next Act Theater presents
by Bill Cain
playing through May 21