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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

EmiliaTen Thousand Things Theater Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Don Giovanni, Our Town, and The Wanderers

Marisa Tejeda, Sun Mee Chomet, and Greta Oglesby
Photo by Alvan Washington
With flash, wit and intensity, Ten Thousand Things Theater Company has brought their signature style to their current production, Emilia, a play by British playwright and actor Morgan Lloyd Malcolm about the poet and feminist Emilia Bassano Lanier, born in England in 1569 and died in 1645. Lanier was the first English woman to publicly assert herself as a poet. Against terrible odds, she managed to have her work published in her lifetime. She was viewed as an outsider in English society, not only as a woman staking claim to a man's profession, but because of her dark complexion, owing to Italian and likely Jewish and Moroccan descent.

Emilia was commissioned by and premiered at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in 2018, transferred to a run in London's West End in 2019 and, in the early stage of the COVID lockdown, was available to view via streaming in fall 2020. The play appears to be just finding its legs on American stages. In London it won the 2020 Olivier Award "best entertainment or comedy"–a category meant to distinguish comedic works from "serious drama." The categorization is both apt because the play is very often extremely funny, as well as a misnomer, because it is deadly serious.

I was totally unfamiliar with the life and work of Emilia Bassano Lanier before encountering the play, and venture to guess I am in good company. Emilia's father, who was a court musician, died when she was only 27 years old. She was then sent to live with a succession of countesses who saw to her education and groomed her for marriage. She declined the expected course of marrying well in order to be provided for and instead became the mistress of a powerful Baron, who married and was much older than Emilia, but treated her well. However, when she became pregnant with his child she was ushered into a marriage with Alfonso Lanier, a union of convenience for both parties and, based on all accounts, an unhappy one.

All of the above is documented in Lanier's diaries, letters, dedications, and records kept by her physician, and aside from changing some names, Malcolm's play follows this narrative quite closely. From here, however, Malcolm's invention of the character Emilia veers away from what is known to be true and enters the arena of broad speculation. The Emilia of the play meets William Shakespeare and enters into a liaison with him that included sharing their literary gifts along with sex. Shakespeare is impressed by Emilia's ability but belittles the idea of her work being published, let alone her claiming the mantle of "poet." There has been speculation that Lanier was the mysterious "dark lady" to whom Shakespeare addresses some of his sonnets, but no evidence has been produced to back this notion, or that they had any kind of relationship at all. However, for our Emilia, his publication of what she believed to be private poems and his appropriation of her poetry into his own work are betrayals stoke a rage that empowers her to break through all barriers and become the poet she was meant to become.

And what of that poetry? It is stridently feminist, certainly in the context of its times. For example, Emilia rails against the church's vilification of Eve as the temptress and asserts that Adam was as much responsible for the fall from grace. Her collection, published when she was forty-two years old, is titled "Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum" (Hail, God, King of the Jews). The title poem relates the crucifixion of Jesus from the point of view of the women who were present. The play brings Amelia's staunch feminism to a head in a cry of righteous anger against the bonds that have kept women from an equal share of our social goods. It is clear Malcolm means these appeals not only reflecting the historic Emilia, but to address the world as it continues to exist.

Ten Thousand Things' signature style, mentioned above, entails playing to small audiences seated two rows deep on four sides of a small square playing area, without stage lighting or amplification and the most minimal of set pieces. Everything needed to stage their shows can fit in the back of a van. Most actors take multiple roles with creative costuming allowing them to make rapid transitions from one role to another. While they present their work to paying audiences at standard venues, such as the Open Book, their format enables Ten Thousand Things to bring live theatre to communities and settings where people typically have little or no access to it. These include shelters for the unhoused, prisons, adult learning centers, urban community centers, and halfway houses. The shows are performed in gyms, libraries, cafeterias or community rooms with all the lights on, so actors can see everyone in the audience and audience members can see one another as well as the actors. The paying audiences have the same experience, which is a joy to behold.

In Emilia, all roles–male and female–are played by eight female actors, and they make for a wonderful ensemble. This is a twist on the theater in Emilia's day when only men appeared on stage, playing both male and female parts. Three play Emilia at different stages of her life: Marisa Tejada as the young Tejeda; Sum Mee Chomet as a young woman; and Greta Oglesby as the mature Emilia, who stakes her rightful place in the world. All are superb. Their costuming (Sarah Bahr designed the marvelous array of costumes) have common elements to identify the three actors as one woman, and there are moments when they are all present, observing their younger or older selves, as if seeking unity in the disparate episodes of Emilia's dramatic life.

The remainder of the cast do sublime work; I will name each, along with characters that left the strongest impression: Maggie Chestovich as Lord Henry Carey and as Eve; George Keller as Alphonso; Mo Perry as Shakespeare and as Lord Howard; Kimberly Richardson as Susan Bertie and as Lady Margaret Clifford; and Sophina Saggau as Lady Katherine. Particularly impressive are the scenes in which these actors appear as a collective of washerwomen who give Emilia much needed support and in turn are transformed by her vision. One gets a sense of a true community among these hard-scrabble women.

Marcela Lorca directs Emilia with the touch of a master storyteller, attentive to every detail that brings the tale to vivid life, while embossing it with the passion intended both by the playwright and her compelling subject. For example, a scene of midwifery is exquisitely realized to create palpable tension, drawing the audience in as witnesses to the grueling process of birth. The set design by Sarah Brandner is effective, yet the essence of simplicity is in keeping with Ten Thousand Things' approach. The versatile Peter Vitale provides live musical accompaniment that adds background atmosphere and expands upon the emotional tone of the play.

I was fortunate to attend a Ten Thousand Things' community performance in the gym of a learning center for special needs students. There is a scene in Act II where the washerwomen shock Emelia by asking if rumors about her and Shakespeare are true. Emelia's response is defensive, demanding "Who is saying such things?" Just at that moment, the public address system cut in with an announcement from the school office, a voice blasting down from speakers placed on the room's high ceiling. Without missing a beat, all five of the "washerwomen" pointed up and improvised things like "Everyone is saying it," "You can hear them yourself," and so on. It was hilarious, and evidence of the quick wit and cohesiveness of this ensemble.

Emilia is an intriguing play, revealing a four-hundred-year-old story that bears relevance in our times. Ten Thousand Things has given it a beautiful, gripping, and thoroughly entertaining production, with performances that mesh to create a work of sheer wonderment and that unleash the power held within Emilia's struggles and triumphs. Highly recommended.

Emilia runs through June 11, 2023. Performances May 18 – June 4 are at The Open Book Center for Literary Arts, 1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis MN; June 8 and 9 at Falcon Heights Church, 1795 Holton Street, Falcon Heights MN; June 10 and 11 at The Woman's Club of Minneapolis, Minneapolis MN. "Name your price" for all tickets, suggested price $35. For the remaining Community Site performances and for tickets and information, please call 612-203-9502 or visit

Playwright: Morgan Lloyd Malcolm; Director: Marcela Lorca; Music Director: Peter Vitale; Choreography and Movement: Darrius Strong; Sets and Props Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Movement and Choreography: Kimberly Richardson; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Dialect Consultant: Keely Wolter; Stage Manager: Chloe Volna-Rich; Assistant Stage Manager: Maya Vagle; Assistant Director: Michelle Elliott; Production Manager: Ryan Volna-Rich.

Cast: Maggie Chestovich (Cordelia/Lord Henry Carey/Eve/Lady Anne/ensemble), Sun Mee Chomet (Emilia 2/Lord Collins/ensemble), Julia Diaz (swing), George Keller (Alphonso/Margaret Johnson/Flora/ensemble), Greta Oglesby (Emilia 3/ensemble), Mo Perry (Helena/Shakespeare/Lord Howard/Hester/ensemble), Kimberly Richardson (Susan Bertie/Lady Margaret Clifford/Midwife/Judith/ensemble), Sophina Saggau (Lady Katherine/Mary Sidney/Mary/ensemble), Marisa Tejeda (Emilia 1/ensemble)