Boy My Greatness

Boy My Greatness
Reviewer's Rating

There was a time when all of Shakespeare’s women were played exclusively by young boys. Many may be familiar with the lack of women in theaters during Shakespeare’s time thanks to 1998 Best Picture Shakespeare in Love. But, says writer and director Zoe Senese-Grossberg, the focus on this topic “seems to be on the absence of women rather than the presence of boys.” What did the lives of these boys in the theater, likely with nowhere else to go, look like? While it’s impossible to ever truly know, this is one of the questions that Senese-Grossberg asks in the heart-wrenching Boy My Greatness.

Boy My Greatness serves us a slice of the lives of six boy players: some current, some former. Harry and Hal, two boys who came to the theater at the same time and are still joined at the hip, navigate a delicate romance. Tom rehearses for his final part – Cleopatra, which he tells the others has been written specifically for him – before he is forcibly aged out of playing women on stage. Robin, a 12-year-old prodigy, joins the company under the watchful eye of John Sharpe, a former boy player who now trains and cares for the boys. Throughout it all, piercing the bubble of the gender-bending, artistic world of the Globe Theatre, is Samuel, himself a former boy player and now a conservative Puritan who preaches on the streets against the heresies of the theater. All the while, plague and the arguably scarier threat of growing up and having enforced gender roles looms.

Their world is an intimate and tender one. It’s rife with joy at times – the characters can revel in gender fluidity and artistic expression in a way modern audiences never associate with Elizabethan times. But darkness creeps at the edges in countless forms, and we never lose the sense of how precarious – and sometimes hard-won – the lives of the boy players are. Senese-Grossberg’s writing is sharp and real, funny and sad, and full of characters who you feel as though you know and are ready to cry for by the time the proverbial curtain drops. 

These characters owe their fully-fleshed-out personalities, as compelling as the hypotheticals of their lives, to the actors that portray them as well as their author. Eli Wassertzurg as Hal in particular is luminous, their body language and facial expressions on stage speaking as much as their dialogue. Juli Worth is dynamic and deep as Tom, who is doomed to live his own life as if that of the arc of tragic heroine queens like Cleopatra that he loves so much. Leo Lion plays John with a hauntedness that foreshadows the possible futures of the boy players, while Rae Bell as young Robin nails the fidgeting and ineffable energy of a young boy, prodigy or no. Benny Rendell as Harry, the boy player who has the least qualms about returning to the performance (in more than one way) of masculinity, has a sweet and sometimes obtuse tenderness, especially around Hal. Sophie Falvey’s performance as Samuel is fascinatingly dichotomous, wrestling with trauma and conservatism and lost love and heartbreak. 

In the vein of Shakespeare’s problem plays, Boy My Greatness does not give us answers to any of the questions it raises. Instead, we are asked only to live in and consider, for a few hours, a part of history that history would have us forget. In short, Boy My Greatness is a masterpiece of intricately woven stories and ruminations on gender, packaged in the likes of six powerful, sympathetic characters in whose world I could happily have spent several more hours. I can’t recommend enough catching this show before the end of its short run. 

The Firebird Project

Written and directed by Zoe Senese-Grossberg

Choreographer: Lauren Elwood

Cast includes: Rae Bell, Sophie Falvey, Leo Lion, Benny Rendell, Eli Wassertzug, Juli Worth

Until March 16th

Running time: 3 hours including intermission