A tempestuous tale

Baltimore Shakespeare Fest offers Ziegler play about Fanny Kemble's life within a role

March 05, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

The 19th-century British actress Fanny Kemble was among the most influential women in America and simultaneously one of the least powerful.

She argued politics over dinner with a U.S. president and inspired such seminal literary works as Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and Henry James' " Washington Square." She wrote plays, poetry and memoirs, and became an abolitionist. And yet, she was kept away from her two daughters for most of their childhoods.

"She had a phenomenal life filled with contradictions," says Tom Ziegler, whose two-character play "Mrs. Kemble's Tempest" is running at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival.

"She also was arguably the first entertainment superstar of all time," the playwright said. "She was the first person whose life the newspapers gossiped about. Women imitated her hairdo and her clothing. Her portrait was painted on dishes, towels and men's ties."

After Kemble married Pierce Butler, a wealthy Philadelphian and slaveholder, she left the stage for about 15 years. But after her divorce in 1849 she needed to support herself, so she gave dramatic readings of Shakespeare's plays in which she performed all the roles.

Ziegler's piece is set during a reading of "The Tempest," and the playwright juxtaposes the actress' tumultuous ups and downs with the rapid reversals of fortune in Shakespeare's island fantasy. From time to time, Kemble departs from the Bard's text to tell stories about her life.

Ziegler became fascinated with Kemble about a decade ago after reading a book given to him by actress Estelle Parsons.

"In one line, Fanny comments that the reason she was able to survive the tempest of her life was because of William Shakespeare," Ziegler says. "That set off an alarm in my head. I began reading biographies about her and also the journals she kept. I could see right away that there were dozens of parallels between her life and Shakespeare's 'Tempest.' "

Michael Carleton, the Shakespeare Festival's artistic director, was drawn to the play because it is a contemporary work inspired by the Bard.

"When I came here last year, I said that I didn't just want to do Shakespeare. I wanted to do what Shakespeare did," Carleton says. "He took classical plots and themes and put his own spin on them. Tom's play fits our mission just perfectly."

The show is directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner and features Washington actress Kimberly Schraf in the title role.

The challenges facing Schraf are staggering. Though Ziegler's play has two characters, only one - Fanny Kemble - speaks. The second, Kemble's accompanist, expresses his opinions through music.

Schraf must credibly portray nearly a dozen roles from "The Tempest" as well as other Shakespearean productions in which Kemble performed. (In one memorable performance of "Othello," the actress, who was playing Desdemona, rebelled against the script and refused to die.)

But, because Kemble makes frequent asides to her audience in which she mimics people from her past, Schraf also must depict such real-life figures as her character's father and husband.

She sighs when asked how many characters she portrays in the 90-minute show.

"That is not a number that I want to find out," she says. "It would be too daunting."

For her, the secret to making the rapid transitions believable is nailing down each character's voice.

"I only have a line or two before I'm on to someone else," she says. "There really isn't time to fully inhabit the role. I have to preserve the back and forth of dialogue, so the play can't stop while I reorient myself to another character."

In addition, Schraf is only the second actress ever to play Ziegler's Fanny on stage; the part was originated by and is associated with a British actress named Jane Ridley.

"It's moving for me to think of taking up the baton from Jane," Schraf says. "She had the play for such a long time. I hope to care for it as lovingly as she did."

If you go
"Mrs. Kemble's Tempest" runs through March 28 at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, 3900 Roland Ave. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 410-366-8596 or go to www.baltimoreshakespeare.org.

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