FORT WORTH The biggest reason to see Stolen Shakespeare Guild's production of The Birth of Merlin is simple: it's from the Shakespeare Apocrypha. These are works from the 17th century that were not in the First Folio but sometimes attributed to Willy Shakes and perhaps a co-writer, and whose authorship has long been debated.
Yet unlike, say, The Two Noble Kinsmen, in which Shakespeare probably had a hand, it's widely accepted that The Birth of Merlin is not Shakespeare's, but the work of competitor playwright William Rowley (who was originally credited as Shakespeare's co-author). Also, it was probably written after Shakespeare's death.
But it just takes a viewing to realize that it couldn't be Shakespeare's. Even his lesser plays have more complexity and poetic skill than this novelty. Still, you stand to come away with a greater appreciation for Shakespeare after seeing SSG's more-hit-than-miss production, directed by Nathan Autrey. For that reason alone, get tickets now.
The plot elements wouldn't be uncommon in a Shakespeare play, or any work of the era, for that matter, including: a nobleman who doesn't have an easy time of setting up his daughters with suitors he deems right for them; a bloody battle, treason and an attempt to overthrow the king (we won't spoil the outcome); and a wizard-like character with a fool (think The Tempest).
As the titular character suggests, there is some crossover with Arthurian, Anglo-Saxon mythology. Director Autrey gives us a sense of reverence for this in the three times in which he has the actors posed in various tableaux -- at the beginning, during the big battle and at the end.
In speech and character, a few of the actors, such as Candace Davis and Katie Reynolds, are about as stiff as the posing in those silent scenes. They could stand to study the ease in both aspects delivered by Thomas Fletcher, who admittedly has a more colorful role as Merlin's father, the Devil.
Or the trio of related roles: Merlin, the prophet (Delmar Dolbier), who is an old man when he is birthed; his mother Joan Goe-Too't (Sarah Zabinski); and the Clown (Terry Yates), Joan's brother and Merlin's uncle. All three actors pull you to them every time they're onstage. Jessica Dahl-Colaw, as a hermit nun, is another standout.
SSG also continues to up its game on the visual side, with impressive sets and costumes (by Jason and Lauren Morgan).
The Birth of Merlin runs in rotating repertory with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the theme of this festival is called "Magic and Merriment." You get both of those elements in both plays, although Dream has merriment in spades. The unexpected magical result from Merlin, however, is to instantly realize that the scholars are right: this play couldn't have come from the pen of Shakespeare.
Thanks, Stolen Shakespeare Guild.