Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Urbanite Theatre's 'Judith' is a Shakespearean shapeshifter

The play's star, Livy Scanlon, changes voices, accents and posture in the blink of an eye.

Livy Scanlon stars in "Judith."
Livy Scanlon stars in "Judith."
Photo by Sorcha Augustine
  • Arts + Entertainment
  • Reviews
  • Share

“Judith” is now making its world premiere at Urbanite Theatre. This one-person play began as a thought experiment in Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” The author wondered …

“Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say.“

Playwright Katie Bender accepted Woolf’s challenge, in concert with star Livy Scanlon. This play is what she imagined.

In Bender’s alternate reality, William and Judith Shakespeare (Scanlon) are both talented writers. Judy’s big brother makes a name for himself in London with a few early plays (now lost). 

Will’s little sister stays put on the family farm in Stratford. A professional writing career is not an option for an Elizabethan woman. Judith does her writing in secret and hides her manuscripts in a trunk in the attic. Sadly, her writing days are numbered. Her father’s about to marry her off to a loutish shepherd. But a hunt for heresy changes the status quo.

The Queen’s Men (The British equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition) suspect that William Shakespeare might not be a right-thinking Protestant. To make that determination, they’re holding a tribunal in London in exactly one week. He’d better show up — or else. 

But Shakespeare’s out of town. For complicated reasons, he can’t get back to London in time. To save her brother’s skin, Judith impersonates him and goes to the big city. Dressed in drag, she takes the Bard’s place at the trial. She makes a good impression. The Queen’s Men clear “William Shakespeare” of all charges. Mission accomplished! 

Now Judith can go home. But she doesn’t want to. Judith's been swept up in London’s heady theater scene. Disguised as her brother, she’s been writing her own plays. She likes it — and Elizabethan audiences like what she writes for the stage. How can you keep her down on the farm after that?

Against all odds and despite her XX chromosomes, Judith quickly becomes a well-paid professional writer at the heart of Elizabethan show business. Life is good! But there’s just one complication. (We’ll get back to that later.)

Bender’s play constantly shifts its center of gravity. Director Brendon Fox directs her madcap material with deft feints and dodges. He keeps you off balance, but always keeps the action clear. Not easy. This is a very physical performance. Scanlon’s a moving target in his production. Fox makes sure you keep them (Scanlon identifies as nonbinary) in focus.

Scanlon is a Shakespearean shapeshifter, changing voices, accents and body language in the blink of an eye. Along with Judith, Scanlon plays nine other roles in this show. (These include Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.) Each characterization is totally distinct. The mercurial performance is a delight to watch.

Jeffrey Weber’s wooden set looks shabby, smoky and well used. It smartly evokes the dark demimonde of London’s pubs, attics, back rooms and back streets. It’s not the main stage at the Globe Theatre, folks. In Weber’s world, all the world is backstage. 

Alison Gensmer’s costumes have a punk rock vibe. Michael Pasquini’s moody lighting is pure film noir. It always seems like night.

Now let’s get to that complication ….

Women-disguised-as-men is a Shakespearean trope. He recycled the gag in “As You Like It” and three other comedies. Bender's playing on the Bard’s home turf, and that’s a big part of the fun. 

But there’s one big difference. In Shakespeare’s plays, the she-in-his clothing typically falls in love with a man. But Judith falls in love with a Dutch woman — Agnes. Judith tries hard to win her heart. But it’s love’s labor's lost.

Despite that sad note, this play’s rough magic is mostly comedy. One performer delivers all the laughs. All this stage is Scanlon’s world. They’re made for this play. And the playwright made this play for them — literally.

Bender knew the actor was born to play this part. Scanlon longed for the role of Judith before the play was written. In fact, they asked Bender to write it. (The quote was Woolf’s. The story idea was Scanlon’s). As “Judith” unfolds at Urbanite, they’re pushing their talents to the limit and having a blast.

Watching Scanlon perform, you will, too.



Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

Latest News