Review: "Boy My Greatness" Brings Us Inside Shakespeare's Aery of Little Eyases

Boy My Greatness

Written and directed by Zoe Senese-Grossberg

Presented by The Firebird Project at Hudson Guild Theater

441 W 26th St., Manhattan, NYC

March 8-16, 2024

L to R: Leo Lion, Rae Bell, Benny Rendell, and Eli Wassertzug. Photo by Rafal Pustelny.
In the playwright/director's note to her new play, Boy My Greatness, Zoe Senese-Grossberg makes the perspicacious observation that when we consider the performance practices in the commercial theaters of Shakespeare's England, "the focus seems to be on the absence of women rather than the presence of boys." Perhaps, in part, hindsight and a narrative of historical progress towards ever-greater equality position them as mere placeholders, always already destined to be supplanted by women actors. Boy players have been the subject of much academic scholarship but, ironically, little to no actual theater. Boy My Greatness rectifies this absence in magnificent fashion, sweeping audiences through an engrossing and affecting fusion of tragedy and comedy that never flags throughout its Shakespearean runtime.

Boy My Greatness comes to us from The Firebird Project, founded in 2013 as a teen-run youth theater, and opens the second season of the Project's adult ensemble Firebird Players. The play takes us to the summer of 1606 at London's Globe Theater (the hangings that adorn an otherwise bare stage perhaps gesture to the painted heavens above the Globe stage in their stylized depiction of the sun, moon, and constellations). The players, members of resident company the King's Men, are preparing to premiere both Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night. Thomas Reade, or Tom (Juli Worth), is set to play Cleopatra, but, at 22 years old, there are rumblings that it may be his final female role, while Henry "Hal" Fletcher (Eli Wassertzug) will star in Twelfth Night, each in line with the types they have played in the past (think Lady Macbeth versus Rosalind). Hal is romantically involved with Henry "Harry" Lawes (Benny Rendell), both of them 17; but here too age threatens disruption to the status quo, specifically on the part of Harry, who has grown much taller than his more delicately framed consort and may be ready to embrace a more "masculine" identity. Into these internal conflicts come two further, external sources of discord. The first is Robert "Robin" Howard (Rae Bell), a supremely confident up and coming 12-year-old willing to sacrifice almost anything for acting. Robin, recruited to the company by John Sharpe (Leo Lion), who oversees the boy players, represents for Tom both a threatening rival and a painful reminder of what once was. The second is Samuel Clark, or Sam (Sophie Falvey), a former boy player turned Puritan anti-theatricalist. And, this being seventeenth-century London, the threat of the plague is never too far away.
L to R: Eli Wassertzug, Rae Bell, Leo Lion, and Benny Rendell. Photo by Rafal Pustelny.
"Boy" as a verb, which comes from Cleopatra expressing her disgust at the idea of herself and her lover, Antony, being personated on the stage after her death, speaks to some of the questions around gender (which Judith Butler calls a "stylized repetition of acts through time" in concert with a "stylization of the body") raised by the play and the boys' enactment of the gestures, intonations, postures, gaits, and physical intimacies of "real women." If a contemporary of Shakespeare could complain that impersonating kings and such great men onstage made greatness ridiculous, then what did it, does it, reveal about gender? Beyond gender, what does acting since childhood do to identity? Tom, for instance, seems to have lost a sense of "real" self whether he wants to or not, while Robin openly prefers to substitute the stage for reality.
L to R: Benny Rendell, Sophie Falvey, Rae Bell, Leo Lion, Juli Worth, and Eli Wassertzug. Photo by Rafal Pustelny.
The play concentrates on Shakespeare's works, though of course the King's Men performed plays by other writers, and it makes effective use of language from his works at numerous points, as in a postmodern take on the prologue and epilogue or a sad, lovely scene in which a conflicted Sharpe reenacts a role from his own time as a boy player (there is also a wordless and joyous gesture to the jigs theorized to have been performed at the end of some early modern productions). If the characters occasionally seem to see Shakespeare–and the concept of stardom–with slightly modern eyes, the play is yet well grounded in the history that it explores–and it's not often one gets an allusion to Phillip Stubbes in contemporary entertainment. The music performed live by Wyatt Camery and Justin Pelofsky provides another early modern note, and there's a very clever take on a balcony scene. The cast is fantastic, whether it's Lion's protective Sharpe having a difficult conversation with Bell's usually charming and sportive Robin about the dangers that can come with patronage, Worth's proud but disquieted Tom confronting Falvey's defiantly damaged Sam over their shared past, or the way in which anger gives way over time to tender melancholy as Wassertzug's Hal negotiates the changes in their relationship with Rendell's sympathetic Harry. Ultimately, Cleopatra need not have worried so much; no squeaking comedians here: Boy My Greatness is filled with the well-tuned voices of beauty and sadness, regret and love–for theater but also for others.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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