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Fanny's Farewell Fares Well

It is 1869. On a bare stage, accompanied only by a pianist to play motifs in the background, the veteran actress Fanny Kemble commences a one-woman reading of Shakespeare's Tempest. It is Shakespeare's valediction, his last play, and deliberately chosen to serve as Mrs. Kemble's own valediction, since this public performance is intended to be her last, after a career that has spanned 37 years, with some interruptions. But of course, it is the interruptions that make up the bulk of the performance-within-a-play, of the play performed for today's audience, and of Mrs. Kemble's life.

That contest between the "prepared text" of the Shakespeare script and the interruptions, in which Mrs. Kemble pours out the story of her life offstage, is meant to be the dramatic tension that sparks Tom Ziegler's 2002 play, Mrs. Kemble's Tempest, now being presented by the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. To this reviewer, however, the prepared text continually douses what could have been a really dramatic conflagration, and lowers the temperature several unnecessary degrees. Mrs. Kemble's life offstage was quite extraordinary, and far more interesting than a pastiche of a deservedly bygone form of public entertainment: one performer reading of a Shakespeare play in its entirety. (This may come as news to playwright Ziegler, but it's true: once you've seen Shakespeare performed by multiple actors, everything else seems kind of one-dimensional.)

Yes, of course, there are easy parallels that can be drawn between The Tempest and Mrs. Kemble's life. The smallpox that, at least in this play, destroyed her looks legitimately evokes echoes of the misshapen character of Caliban. The heady experience of liberté in 1830s Paris can be compared to the wonderment in the mutual discovery of Ferdinand and Miranda. But no matter how natural and un-labored these parallels might be, they tell us little that accounts of the experience of smallpox or liberté, unmediated by Shakespeare quotes but presented straightforwardly, could not give us. The Shakespeare just slows it down.

And so, the framework of the public reading ends up being indulged far too long. Only gradually, as - courtesy of the "interruptions" - we learn of Fanny Kemble's complicated financial and professional interactions with her British acting family, her disastrous American marriage to Pierce Butler, slaveholder and eventually Confederate stalwart, her abolitionist writings, proto-feminism and wrenching divorce, does the play really catch fire. Unfortunately, this basically gets under way at least a third of the way into a play with a 90-minute-plus running time.

Not that the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival doesn't do its best with this material. The actress upon whose shoulders the entire production rests, Kimberly Schraf, is endlessly impressive. If the sheer mastery of 90 minutes of material weren't enough, she has a command of accents and voices that rivals Meryl Streep's. Nor is this easy material to present, calling for her to shift continuously back and forth between Shakespearean and modern diction, and never to be able to rely, even for a moment, on that acting sweetener, portrayal of an unreliable narrator. We know from the first to the last that Mrs. Kemble is telling the truth: blessed with self-understanding, candor, and capacious memory. This kind of monologuist is actually harder to make interesting than ones who set out to deceive the audience and/or themselves. We are meant to admire Mrs. Kemble as much as her contemporaries did. This is tough, and it is to Schraf's credit that she pulls off this surprisingly difficult feat. We leave the play confirmed Fanny Kemble fans.

Shraf has less success in overcoming a very different sort of obstacle: the muddy acoustics of St. Mary's Church, where the play is presented. The language of this play is hard to process: hard because it is often Shakespearean, hard because it is in dialects, hard because much of it is delivered from the back of a deep stage and/or with Schraf facing away from us. St. Mary's is a very welcoming space for viewing theater (comfortable pews, good sightlines), but not for hearing it. At least to these middle-aged ears, it was a struggle to know what was being said much of the time, notwithstanding that Schraf's diction was always excellent.

A word should also be said about the unnamed character of the pianist who accompanies Mrs. Kemble, portrayed with prissy brio by Esther Covington. Unacquainted with earlier productions, I do not know how much of the developing interaction between accompanist and accompanied is a choice of the director, Lee Mikeska Gardner. It seems like a good idea to lend some depth and texture to the framing of the piece, by showing Mrs. Kemble and the pianist at first in some conflict (the pianist wants to accompany The Tempest, not a memoir) and Mrs. Kemble gradually winning over the pianist to the evening's departure from plan. But it also adds one more "ball in the air." We in the audience thus need to negotiate a fragmentary 19th Century Shakespeare reading, a memoir, and a drawn-out drama between the two characters on the stage before us. It is a near thing whether we should be grateful or not.

Ben Jonson's famous remark about Shakespeare's reported practice of never blotting out a line ("Would he had blotted a thousand") might have been all wrong as applied to The Tempest, but seems a propos with Mrs. Kemble's Tempest. There is too much here, and it should have been cut more. But even burdened with an over-burdened script and indifferent acoustics, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's production still makes for an entertaining evening of theater. Fanny Kemble is well worth getting to know.

Through March 24. Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, St. Mary's Church, 3900 Roland Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21211. Phone (410) 366-8596 . Adults $25, Seniors (62 and over) $20, Students (with ID) $10.

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