All the couples of the world live in Shakespeare’s works, emotionally and in life experiences. People identify with Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers; Beatrice and Benedick, the comedic combatants, who ultimately fall in love; the lovesick Helena, spurned by Demetrius; the domestically abusive and abused Petruchio and Kate; the power-driven Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and on and on.
All these deeply rich characters—and more—have inspired playwright Sara Fay George to stitch these personas together into just two characters—WOMAN/MAN—for her 116: A Shakespeare Play, which opens April 15th for one week in New York.
Man/Woman have been bound together for many life times (200,000 years) in a purgatory-like existence to learn to live in the perfect state of love on earth and beyond.
“If relationships,” George says, “are always in a power struggle to win, to always be right, to always be better than the other, they will never be able to truly be in one place with one another.” The couple’s power struggle is represented in a game of chess, where Woman, played by George, and Man, played by James Soller, compete against each other in what the director, Andrea Goldman, says is a battle of “life and death.”
George’s dialogue is pulled directly from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. In fact, the title comes from Shakespeare’s idealistic Sonnet 116 that declares, “love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
“I have pulled (dialogue) from all his plays except King James,” George states assuredly and then pauses to think, “Well, maybe from that one, too.” She has taken “bits and pieces of (Shakespeare’s) text and woven them with chunks of text” to create Man’s and Woman’s voices, experiences, and “fears of entering into intimacy.”
The play opens when Man and Woman first meet and fall in love. Their lives meander through the emotional journeys, not the literal circumstances, of Romeo and Juliet, Helena and Demetrius, Kate and Petruchio, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, and others.
The 26-year-old playwright’s decision to create this play, in part, came about because she opted to follow the adage “write what you know.”
“Shakespeare is someone I know intimately.” Growing up, George immersed herself in Shakespeare with the help of her father, Robert George, who studied and performed his works, and her mentor Meri Reeves, who ran Wandering Wings, a community Shakespeare organization in George’s hometown of Oregon House, California.
“It is a very small undeveloped town of 2000, not a stoplight anywhere, not much to do.” Her first role, at age 8, was Kate in an abbreviated version of The Taming of the Shrew. Four years later, George took on the role of Helena in the full version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her older sister, younger brother, friends and her dad worked in the plays, too.
“My father and I would talk for hours about the characters’” motivations, psychology. “He was more like a colleague, a peer. He looked at me eye-to-eye. He didn’t expect me to look up to him.”
These dialogues were the seeds that became 116. “He was fascinated by all kinds of love.” Throughout the writing process, “I would always send my dad the script. He was never afraid to challenge me.” He helped her delve into the psychology of Man and Woman.
The final piece to 116 came with the loss of her father less than a month ago. Three weeks into 116’s rehearsals, her father had a stroke and a bacterial infection set in. “The day I found out, I flew back to California.” He had slipped into a coma and was suffering from level-five brain damage. “We took him off the respirator, 60 hours after I arrived.”
“That experience of my father passing added so much understanding to the piece;” it evolved pass the “history of my ex-husband” and became a broader love story about all kinds of love, not just that between a man and a woman.
Prior to witnessing her father’s last breaths, she sat in the room with him; “communicating telepathically,” she helped him to let go of life and herself to let him go.
“Loving is letting go.”
Performance details: April 15-19 8 p.m., April 20th 6 p.m. at New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher, Suite 1E, New York City, NY 10014. 212.675.6446. $25, $20 students.