|L-R: Jordan Kaplan, Eric Emil Oleson, Jacques Roy, and Tom Schwans inTHE TRAGEDY OF KING ARTHUR BY W. SHAKESPEARE. Photo by Debby Goldman.|
Arthur Phillips is a true polymath: a one-time child actor, a jazz musician, a speechwriter, a five-time Jeopardy! champion, and a highly creative novelist with several bestsellers to his credit. His fifth book, The Tragedy of Arthur, was published to critical acclaim in 2011 and has since been adapted for the stage by Phillips as The Tragedy of King Arthur by W. Shakespeare. The Guerrilla Shakespeare Project is now presenting the off off Broadway world premiere of the play at TBG Theatre on West 36th Street in midtown Manhattan. And it is a truly first-rate professional production, well worth seeing.
The 367-page book that Phillips published in 2011 really was two books in one. Book One - the first 256 pages - were written as an “introduction” to The Tragedy of Arthur, a presumably long lost play by William Shakespeare that had just come to light. That “introduction” was presented as having been written by a novelist named “Arthur Phillips,” who bore such a strong resemblance to the real “Arthur Phillips” that it was tough to tell the two apart. (In an attempt at keeping things straight, from here on out, I’ll refer to the real Arthur Phillips who wrote the book and subsequently adapted it for the stage as Phillips-1 and to the Arthur Phillips who is the protagonist in the book as Phillips-2.) Anyway, in his “introduction,” Phillips-2 explained that the way the long lost play had come to light was that his father, a recently deceased convicted forger and Shakespeare fanatic, had bequeathed it to him. Given his father’s history, Phillips-2 was understandably skeptical regarding the legitimacy of the play his father had “discovered” but it sure seemed real, tests performed on the manuscript’s paper and ink appeared to further legitimate it, and no one other than Phillips-2 himself seemed to doubt its validity. In penning his “introduction,” Philllips-2 also elaborated at length on his relationship to his father and his sister so, to a great extent, the “introduction” may be thought of as constituting Phillips-2’s “memoir” (and Phillips-1’s fictional “memoir.”)
Book 2 – the last 111 pages – was the text of the “Shakespeare” play itself, The Tragedy of Arthur, a five act play written primarily in blank verse. The plot for the play clearly was drawn from Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare’s primary historical source, and the play’s language was thoroughly consistent with Elizabethan language and grammar.
So was The Tragedy of Arthur really a newly discovered play by the Bard of Avon or just another clever forgery by Phillips-2’s father?
When Phillips-1 adapted his novel for the stage, he couldn’t very well write a play based only on the first 256 pages of his book (the “introduction”), stage that, and then stage a five act Elizabethan-style tragedy (the last 111 pages of his book) right after it. So he did something very much better: he created an intricate work that wove together the dynamics of modern father-son relationships, Arthurian legend, and outright fantasy, a work that incorporated a play within a play, and one that challenged its audience to question its very understanding of truth and reality itself.
The protagonist of The Tragedy of King Arthur by W. Shakespeare is Arthur (that’s actually Arthur Phillips-2, played with extraordinary acrobatic athleticism by Jacques Roy). When he is bequeathed the manuscript of The Tragedy of Arthur, he is, to say the least, skeptical. His sister Dana (Sarah Hankins) is miffed that the manuscript has been left to him and not to her, but she is more willing to entertain the notion that it might actually be legitimate. Arthur’s agent (Geordie Broadwater), his lawyer (Jordan Kaplan) and a professor who presumably has vetted the manuscript (Tom Schwans) share Dana’s attitude, not Arthur’s.
When Dana prevails upon Arthur that they act out the play themselves, in an attempt at determining whether or not it is a forgery, the characters morph into the very characters of Arthurian legend who they are depicting. Arthur, of course, becomes Prince Arthur – he who was to become the legendary King Arthur – but he is hardly the dashing character we’ve come to expect. Dana morphs into Mordred – Prince Arthur’s mortal enemy. And Arthur’s dead father (Eric Emil Oleson) appears in Arthur’s daydream or imagination or in some such fantastical form and, in the course of the play, becomes the Earl of Gloucester (who was a second father to Prince Arthur in earlier times).
Press releases for The Tragedy of King Arthur by W. Shakespeare describe it as being “an evening of fraud, forgery and illegitimacy, centering on the complicated relationship between a father and son” and notes further that “The Tragedy of Arthur is a play full of Shakespeare’s language, poetry, insight, drama beauty, and history; however, the mystery of its true origins begs us to blend and blur what we know and what we choose to believe.” The description of The Tragedy of Arthur may be a bit hyperbolic but the rest of the press release is true enough. This is, indeed, a play about ambivalence, fallibility and deception that causes one to question just what we mean by “truth.”
The entire cast performs brilliantly but three actors truly stand out. Jacques Roy is incredible as both Arthurs –Phillips-2 and Prince Arthur – bounding about the stage as a modern day Douglas Fairbanks and literally climbing the walls. Eric Emil Oleson is splendid as Phillips-2’s father in one scene and as the Earl of Gloucester, Prince Arthur’s virtual second father, in the next. And Geordie Broadwater is delightfully amusing both as Phillips-2’s agent and as an effete French diplomat exploring both the possibilities of a political alliance with Prince Arthur and more intimate liaisons of his own.