Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Actors' Shakespeare Project"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Special to Theater Mirror

Actors’ Shakespeare Project

By Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Special to Theater Mirror

A new Boston-area theater was launched at a benefit May 3, designed to be a moveable feast of accessible, intimate Shakespeare performed in mostly nontraditional spaces. The new group, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, aims to remove the barriers raised by elaborate productions and fey directorial concepts and to let Shakespeare’s words explode upon actors and audiences with fresh power.

In a demonstration of good things to come, local professional actors volunteered their time and talent to perform eerily topical scenes on leadership, politics and war. The Brattle Theater in Cambridge provided the space for the event.

John Kuntz opened the festivities with a comic but threatening Richard, Duke of Gloucester, from “Henry VI.” Then Douglas Lockwood as King Henry V wooed Sarah Newhouse’s charming, French-speaking Katherine with a politically expedient marriage proposal that was nevertheless sweetly romantic. Bill Mootos as the King of Navarre managed to offend a different Princess of France (Sarah Douglas) by keeping to a vow of no women at his court in “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

Marya Lowry played a principled and tragic Queen Katherine, spurned by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn and advised -- with slimy self-interest -- by the king’s cardinals (Robert Walsh and Richard Snee). The “Henry VIII” scene was all too suggestive of current world leaders and opportunisitic advisers. Paula Langton as Isabella in “Measure for Measure” struggled with the impossible choice that Angelo (Ken Cheeseman) gives her, choosing virtue even over the life of her beloved brother.

Jennie Israel was a powerful Constance, jilted for a political marriage with France’s Princess Blanche (Sarah Douglas) in “King John.” In “Henry VI,” Richard Snee as Richard, Duke of York, meets a nasty end at the hands of a vicious Queen Margaret (Paula Plum) in an act of revenge as familiar as the endless round we see today when one side cannot see the other side as human.

And speaking of revenge, the scene from “Coriolanus” was the most riveting of the evening. It was a revelation to see Bobbie Steinbach as Volumnia trying to talk son Coriolanus (Benjamin Evett) out of his bloody purpose, and accusing him of “tearing his country’s bowels out.” (Catch Barbara Bush accomplishing that!)

The last words were permitted to Gonzalo from “The Tempest” (John Kuntz) who dared to envision a peaceful world. Sigh.

With simple set pieces and evocative background slides featuring important quotes from the plays, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project demonstrated to an audience of well-wishers just what it has up its sleeve. If one word to the wise were to be given, it would be that not every well-wisher knew what the project was all about or even who gave the welcoming speech (founder Benjamin Evett didn’t say his name). So going forward, it will be important to articulate clearly and repeatedly to many kinds of audiences just why this theater is different and why the region needs it. For the lucky attendees May 3, the answer certainly became apparent as the scenes unfolded.

In his opening remarks, Evett promised that “Richard III” would be the first full production, timed for the 2004 election season. With $50,000 raised so far, all systems are go, and an announcement on an interesting and unconventional venue is expected any day. “Measure for Measure” is planned for the winter 2005 production and “Julius Caesar” for spring.

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide