Review: Shakespeare Faces Writer’s Block in Milwaukee World Premiere of God’s Spies

Just as reliable as dandelions, up comes a new spring play by Bill Cain. The playwright’s newest work, God’s Spies, opened recently at Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre. Cain has had a close relationship with Next Act over the years. Last spring, his play, The Last White Man, had its world premiere here. Next Act also has produced three more Cain plays in past seasons: Equivocation, 9 Circles and How to Write a New Book for the Bible.

It is perhaps a no-brainer that Next Act would choose a Bill Cain play to close out the 30-year tenure of artistic director David Cecsarini, who is retiring from full-time leadership. God’s Spies is the final show in Next Act’s current season. Cody Estle, former artistic director at Chicago's Raven Theatre, will take over as artistic director this spring.

Cain’s world premiere fits nicely with Wisconsin’s statewide movement to celebrate new work. Called World Premiere Wisconsin, it opened with a world premiere at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in February. The event closes at the end of June.

In God’s Spies, Cain returns to his most-beloved character: William Shakespeare. While his former play, The Last White Man, explored popular myths and lore about Hamlet, this time he takes on another of Shakespeare’s works, King Lear.

The play is set in London during the 1600s, where Shakespeare (now called Shax due to his horrible handwriting) finds himself “trapped” with two commoners during a citywide lockdown caused by the Black Death. Faced with the prospect of spending a great deal of time with a prostitute and a lawyer, Shakespeare decides to continue his writing on a play that eventually becomes King Lear.

When hearing “Shax” describe the story line, the prostitute claims she had heard something similar not too long ago. (It turns out that prostitutes of that period were regular theatergoers, as they could attract favorable—and profitable—male attention while the play continued onstage.) In fact, it was there that Ruth (Eva Nimmer) found Edgar (Zach Thomas Woods), the young lawyer, who was transfixed by her beauty. Edgar follows her back to her lodgings and, well, you can guess the rest.

Mark Ulrich (as Shakespere) is attempting to write a better script than Hamlet, in God's Spies.
Photo by Ross Zentner.


Comic Elements and Slightly Twisted Facts


Cain’s plays are often filled with droll humor and slightly exaggerated facts about what is known about Shakespeare during his lifetime. In Cain’s case, this knowledge comes from the fact that he founded a Shakespeare company in Boston.

As Shax (Mark Ulrich) plods on with his writing; he expresses his unhappiness with the early results. He fears that this new work might end up resembling Timon of Athens II. His goal is to write a work that will exceed the popularity of his all-time favorite, Hamlet. He credits Hamlet’s success for filling many seats at the Globe Theatre, which Shax owns.

Sounding like one of the early deniers of the COVID-19 epidemic, Shax expresses optimism that his theater will reopen in a few days. Meanwhile, it is up to the woman of the house to keep everyone fed and clothed, and the house clean. She intuitively believes that a clean home is essential for keeping the Black Death at bay.

Meanwhile, Edgar’s emotions vary wildly. He feels both lust for Ruth and disgust at his “ungodly” feelings towards her. However, once he beds Ruth, he finally understands what men have been craving for generations. Piety seems to fly out the window.

A few profanity-filled moments are meant to be humorous, but don’t get much positive reaction by the audience. Far funnier are “lawyer jokes” like this one from Ruth: “There’s only one difference between us,” she claims, nudging Edgar. “I charge a fair price.”

If Ruth is a burgeoning businesswoman, she is also something of an early feminist. Never taught to read or write, she chides society for forcing women into lower caste, submissive roles. It’s clear that in many ways, Ruth is the smartest and most resilient of the three, despite her lack of formal education. Nimmer excels at being a hard-driving bargainer one minute and, in the next, a soft place for the men (especially Edgar) to fall.

All three of the actors work well under David Cecsarini’s direction. Ulrich (Shax) and Nimmer (Ruth) both have appeared in Bill Cain’s work previously at Next Act. Zach Thomas Woods, who excels at expressing his comic punch lines through a thick Scottish brogue, has appeared on Milwaukee’s various stages for the past 10 years. Ulrich, a member of Chicago’s Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, has performed in numerous Next Act productions over the years. As Shax, he expresses the anxiety and passion of the world’s greatest playwright, while also seeming somewhat arrogant and aloof. Playwright Bill Cain makes a strong point that the future of King Lear is as much the creation of the other captives as it is in the mind of the “brilliant” Shakespeare.

Black Death captives spend time editing Shakespeare's play. From left: Zach Thomas Woods, Mark Ulrich and Eva Nimmer. Photo by Ross Zentner.


“Brush Up” Your Understanding of King Lear


Before viewing God’s Spies, it might be worthwhile for audiences to “brush up their Shakespeare” in terms of understanding the plot, as well as some of Lear’s great speeches. The play is quoted frequently throughout the show. While I preferred Cain’s earlier work, The Last White Man, to the current production, one senses that both will eventually find larger audiences.

Supporting the show is the masterful, Tudor-styled interior set by Rick Rasmussen, lit to dusky perfection by lighting designer Noele Stollmark. Costume designer Amelia Strahan gives us more-than-acceptable period clothing. As sound designer, Josh Schmidt introduces scene changes with some rousing Elizabethan-style music that reminds one of the film soundtrack to Pirates of the Caribbean.

God’s Spies at Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre runs through May 21. Running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes, with one intermission. The theater, located near Milwaukee’s Third Ward, does not require mask-wearing at this time. Single performance tickets may be purchased by calling 414-278-0765 or visiting nextact.org.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.