Fact and Fiction: EP Theater debates artistic authorship in “The Lost Shakespeare Play”

The cast of "The Lost Shakespeare Play"; photo by Kristin Cordova
A man squeezes into EP Theater’s top row, with slicked back hair, a swallow-tailed coat and waistcoat. It is “Edmund Malone,” a.k.a. actor Kevin Gladish, waiting for his cue. Moments into the play, Edmund Malone interjects, bounds to his feet and rushes down to the stage. “William-Henry Ireland,” played by actor Nick Vidal, is the unfortunate object of Malone’s impassioned reprimands. The heated debate between Malone and Ireland fuels the ninety-minute show.

35-year-old Dave Stinton wrote “The Lost Shakespeare Play” after attending the 2001 Stratford Festival of Canada, where he chanced upon the story of William-Henry Ireland, who had forged a series of Shakespearean documents. Jen Ellison, a twelve-year veteran of the Chicago theater scene, directs the unfolding mystery.

Stinton’s play focuses on this real-life Shakespearean scandal that unfolded in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain. William-Henry Ireland, a 19-year-old law clerk, purportedly “discovered” a cache of manuscripts autographed or authored by William Shakespeare, including a lost play called “Vortigern, an Historical Play.” Edmund Malone, the eminent Shakespearean scholar of the day, denounced the documents as forgeries.

The audience comes to know William-Henry through his relationship with his father “Samuel Ireland,” an antiquarian, travel writer, bookseller, artist, and publisher, played by Adam Weiler. Mr. Ireland is a somewhat silly, amateur Shakespeare enthusiast, whom Weiler captures well, and Vidal’s William-Henry captures the audience’s sympathy as the inadequate son.

Gladish’s Malone is a pleasingly pedantic scholar who rants and reflects, developing into a round and convincing character as he fights for the very soul of Shakespearean integrity. Sean Patrick Leonard plays the renowned Shakespeare actor John Philip Kemble of London’s Drury Lane Theater, who schemes with Malone and is especially enjoyable while bellowing famous passages from “Hamlet” or “King Lear.”

Throughout, the audience serves as the jury in the case of Malone v. Ireland, as they battle it out between fact and fake. Each clamors to tell their side of the story and defend the “true” work of Shakespeare. Stinton asks the question, “Does it matter whose name is on a work of art or rather that it affects you in some way?” William-Henry champions those who believed in the recovered manuscript, claiming, “The joy they felt was not a forgery.” “The Lost Shakespeare Play” makes us wonder along with William-Henry if “Shakespeare is but a label meaning ‘good.’”

The Lost Shakespeare Play Through March 22. Thursday, 7pm; Friday and Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 2pm. EP Theater, 1820 S. Halsted Ave. (312)850-4299. $20. eptheater.com