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Woman's Work

Fanny Kemble's life story makes for compelling theater

Kimberly Schraf runs lines.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 3/17/2010

Mrs. Kemble's Tempest

By Tom Ziegler

Through March 28 at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival

In 1869, Philadelphia Fanny Kemble, perhaps the most famous actress of her time, takes the stage for one final performance. It's a dramatic reading of Shakespeare's final play The Tempest, a finale for her finale. In Tom Ziegler's play Mrs. Kemble's Tempest, this last performance by Kemble is imagined less as a straight reading of the play and more as live memoir, a journey through her life punctuated by Shakespeare's words and characters. Ziegler's play, like Kemble's life, starts off slow, but by the end the audience is enthralled by this unusual woman.

Kemble was a most unwilling actress. She thought the profession was unseemly and actually wanted to be a writer. She was forced into the limelight in order to help her father, an actor and theater manager, who seemed incapable of managing money. After a tour of the United States, Kemble married Pierce Butler. Kemble imagined their romance would be like Miranda and Ferdinand from The Tempest; instead, it was more Miranda and Caliban. Kemble was a staunch abolitionist; Butler owned slaves. Kemble was a feminist; Butler considered his wife property.

How Kemble navigated this relationship is the most exciting part of the play. It's a shame it takes so long to get there. The play has just two characters, Kemble (Kimberly Schraf) and a pianist (Esther Covington). The pianist never speaks, but she casts an unfortunate pall over the proceedings. The early part of the play feels burdened by snitting between the two, which makes Kemble seem frivolous and self-centered and the pianist like an unprofessional ass. The interactions are simply distracting and take away from the story. Covington stomps on to the stage in cartoony anger and keeps this dimensionless stance until some point in the middle, when Kemble and the pianist spontaneously become the best of friends. It's a relief when the feud is over, but it hardly feels earned.

Released from that unpleasant subplot, Schraf flourishes as Kemble, showing a woman of determination and grit despite her frilly frocks. The stories of her life on Butler's plantation are particularly moving, and may encourage you to read Kemble's published work on the subject.

The readings from Shakespeare are good, and Schraf does a nice job embodying the characters in a style that feels period-appropriate. However, the parallels between Kemble's life and The Tempest--and briefly Romeo and Juliet--occasionally feel heavy-handed. An Othello interlude is a marked exception, providing a powerful tale that could not be properly told without Shakespeare's words. Schraf provides a bravura performance carrying the show and speaking for the entire hour-and-45-minute show. Her combination of class and strength is a perfect fit for Kemble.

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