Henslowe! Or, A Lamentable Complaint
Written and performed by Alexander D[CQ, no period] Carney
Reviewed by Robert Viagas
A minor personage who had a major effect on the life of William Shakespeare is ushered out of the shadows of history into the spotlight in Henslowe! Or, A Lamentable Complaint. Alexander D Carney’s solo play introduces Phillip Henslowe, the man who built London’s Rose Playhouse where Shakespeare’s plays were first mounted, and who claims vaingloriously to have discovered the budding Bard.
Author/star Carney spends most of the 75-minute monologue describing his loves (especially good writing and full houses) and his hates (actors who don’t pay back his generous loans). He erupts with frustration at the fact that the “upstart” Shakespeare will be remembered forever, but he, Henslowe, who createsd the financial underpinning of Shakespeare’s success, will only be remembered, if he is remembered at all, as a minor supporting character. Carney wants to change that.
Carney, who states in a program note that he’s been working on the play for twelve years, tries to give his meandering and sometimes repetitive narrative some shape by having Henslowe rehearse what is essentially a 16th century backers’ audition, in which he pleads to an imagined audience of moneyed gentry for the shillings and pounds he needs, not only to mount his “greatest discovery”—Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta—but to give the dilapidated but beloved Rose Theatre itself a desperately needed refurbishment. Henslowe! is based in part on the manager’s original financial ledger, which chronicled all the people he lent money to, including many of the leading literary lights of the times—and the many did and never paid him back. The tattered ledger, which he nicknames A Lamentable Complaint, lends its sobriquet to the play’s subtitle.
Carney’s acting sometimes strains the limits of the super-intimate real-life Off-Off-Broadway venue Torn Page Theatre (located in the onetime home of late actors Rip Torn and Geraldine Page) in which he performs Henslowe! Carney often appears to be pushing his voice and gesture to the back of a balcony that isn’t there. But there is a moment where he asks whether the subject matter isn’t worth a dose of bombast. In that moment the actor and the character become one.
The dilapidated Rose Theatre itself, which the “ingrate” Shakespeare leaves behind for the greener pastures of Burbage’s Globe, is no mere building to Henslowe. The Rose is his most prized property (along with his bear-baiting pit and his brothel). With the loving way he speaks about it and to it, you can see that the Rose also is his obsession, his muse, his mistress—and, ultimately, his co-star in this play. Henslowe makes a case that he may lack the divine fire of a writer or actor, but even a hard-nosed businessman like himself can sometimes rise to the level of an artist by dint of his nurturing great writers and especially great plays. He argues passionately for metaphorically adding his initials to The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare’s Henry VI and other plays. With Henslowe!, Carney transforms a theatrical footnote into true tale of sound and fury.
Presented by Raised Spirits Theater and directed by Michael Mahoney, Henslowe! is playing a limited run through Oct. 6 at the 25-seat Torn Page Theatre in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.