Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia is teeming with flaws: it is heavier than heavy-handed, pandering to a fault, and performed with a great deal of sloppiness on behalf of all involved. But in addition to all of these, it is also a show that is brimming with life; it is one made for now and one that needs to be seen now.
“Good evening,” opens the show, a response expected from the audience. Our narrator (the eldest Emilia) shows us that this is a show which demands participation — one which would be meaningless without it. This Emilia reads an introduction from an old, misogynistic text, rolling her eyes and scoffing throughout, then throws the book on the ground of the stage. In this we see the central metaphor for this production: the venerated words of yesteryear being rightly discarded for the harmful ideas which they perpetuate. When she tells us “We are only as powerful as the stories we tell,” it is as if we are picking up at the final number of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” This is to be a show in which women who have been suppressed throughout history are given a full-length musical and a stage to themselves in order to at last take ownership of their own stories.
To the ends of inclusivity and feminism, everything about the show is as basic as it can be. Subtlety has no place in the world of Emilia, nor does distinctive characterization for the titular character. This is a show which aims to say to all women in the audience “We are you” (as further detectable in the buttons handed out post-show, which proclaim “#IAmEmilia”). Inarguably the youngest audience in which we have sat, I suppose the writers didn’t want a thought in the production to be missed based on age or lack of familiarity with musical theatre tropes. So, the whole thing is a rehash of stories we have heard in more complex and more emotionally impactful and more thoughtfully written versions before. But again, that’s not quite integral to the point Emilia is trying to make. What point is Emilia trying to make? Well, all of them: mansplaining is bad. Appropriation of others’ stories is bad. Spousal abuse is bad. And at the end of the day, men are bad.
I have truly tried to wipe clean my biases as a male reviewer of this show, but there is a moment when the eldest Emilia shouts the word “MEN!” at the audience to kick off an oration about how bad men are — an oration which ends the show. In this speech, she rhetorically ponders why men mistreat women so, “as if we have not nurtured them. As if we rape them.” As a male victim of rape, this, needless to say, pisses me off. It’s oversimplification to the degree of absurdity, and it saddens me that so many young women will walk away from this show (in which there is not a single crimeless male character) thinking that men rape women and that is that.
But, at the same time, it cannot be ignored that this is a show which is doing something absolutely crucial to society and to the arts: letting women speak unbounded by a single person of the male sex onstage. The show thus accomplishes an admirable goal while marring a lot in its wake.
There are some other things to commend about this show. First, there is an actor who is missing an arm onstage, as well as an actor with a profound speech impediment. Neither of these actors’ handicaps were relevant to their characters or even mentioned in the script — they were just actors like the rest of the cast. This was quite a breath of fresh air in an industry which tends to shun actors with anything less than perfect bodies and voices unless it is exploiting them to exhibitionist ends. Second, this show references abuse of power without gruesomely displaying it in the line of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Provok’d Wife, a needed favor to all in the audience. Third, this production does not shy away from telling Shakespeare to go f*** himself, which, though not necessarily a moral issue, is at least something which the theatre industry is not often wont to do. Finally, the acting in this production — specifically from the youngest Emilia, from her 60-year-old lover, and from Will Shakespeare — is just phenomenal. I wanted to get a drink with all of them, and when the cast is dancing on the stage after the final scene, everyone in the audience wants to dance with them, too.
But there is more to lament about the show, too. The whole second act, for example, feels unnecessary. Nothing new is discovered in this second hour; it’s just an opportunity to do more of what was done in act one, harder. When the first act ends in disaster as the male characters go wild about the presence of women on the stage, the audience is roused with ebullient joy — we got it. It was a fantastic one-act, and we could’ve gone home. But in the second act, they essentially just tell us explicitly what we could’ve gotten from the first act, though this time it’s in invective form and this time there’s more chewing of the scenery. Certainly the audience stayed with them, but I wish something else had justified the presence of act two beyond getting more laughs and hammering the message home harder. There is also the shortcomings in acting by certain cast members; I’ll pick on the second Emilia, who broke onstage at something that was funny, but not funny enough to justify breaking onstage in the middle of a professional production. And finally, there is that “tell-don’t-show” diatribe which concludes the show, written like a high schooler’s last-minute paper for women’s and gender studies class. Not only is it inaccurate and hurtful regarding the male sex (which admittedly is guilty of a lot, but which is not without redemptive capacity, as this show would have you believe), it is also just lazy writing. The audience stands up immediately afterward — though it didn’t cheer for the seconds in between the final word and the start of curtain call music, leading to some grave awkwardness — and gives the show the warmest reception we’ve seen. But it’s only because they agree with the ideas. As theatre, it is not as well-executed as its response might suggest. As a speech for class president elections, however, it certainly is.
You should still see Emilia — if you’re a woman, because it’s empowering and fun. If you’re a man, because it’s eye-opening and fun. It’s messy as all hell and deeply misguided at points; but then again, it is fueled by a passion which demands stage-time and demands the attention of the community. If you look past a lot of the elements which make a good show good, you’ll have a really, really good time.