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Local companies take fresh approaches to crowd-pleasing Shakespeare

Local companies take fresh approaches to crowd-pleasing Shakespeare

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Around Madison this summer, swordfights have broken out with surprising regularity. Girls are dressing up as boys, and shipwrecks and star-crossed affairs seem to show up on every other stage.

From “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” to the lesser-known “Troilus and Cressida” and “Pericles,” no fewer than 10 works by and about William Shakespeare are playing on five different stages in late summer and early fall. There are histories, comedies and tragedies, well-known works and obscure dramas, productions staged with full Roman regalia and black box shows in contemporary street clothes.

Despite long run times and archaic prose, the appeal of the Bard remains steadfast. Actors like the plays’ complexity, depth and humor; many relish the challenge in the language.

Directors love the freedom to trim and adapt 400-year-old stories and producers appreciate that the rights are free. All of this leads to plenty of Shakespearean options for local audiences.

So whether it’s a love story, an epic battle or a solo show inspired by Shakespeare, take one of these opportunities to get to know the Bard a little better.


Perhaps the best one-stop shop for Shakespeare this August is American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

The company is putting up three main stage productions — “Twelfth Night,” “Richard III” and “Troilus and Cressida,” which opens in previews Friday, Aug. 10.

Also on the docket are two related plays in the 200-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre: Jim DeVita’s solo piece, “In Acting Shakespeare,” and “Shakespeare’s Will,” featuring Tracy Michelle Arnold as Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife.

“We always do Shakespeare in our season, but this year we have more than usual,” said Sara Young, APT’s director of communications. “We thought we should have some sort of blow-out event for all these people who love Shakespeare.”

That event, called the “Shakespearience,” runs Aug. 24-26. It opens with a keynote address from Harvard University professor Marjorie Garber, author of “Shakespeare and Modern Culture” and an analysis of all 38 Shakespeare plays called “Shakespeare After All.”

There will be a screening of the documentary “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” about the staging of Shakespeare using prisoners as actors, academic talks about the sonnets, play classification and Shakespeare’s biography, and of course, opportunities to see all of the Shakespeare currently running up the hill.

APT capped tickets at 200 and sold them all.

“It’s a way to connect with the nationwide Shakespeare audience,” Young said. “You can just immerse yourself in Shakespeare for the weekend.”

Among this summer’s Shakespeare, the most intriguing may be William Brown’s staging of the rarely produced “Troilus and Cressida.”

It takes as its central characters some of the same people who appear in Homer’s “Iliad,” including the warrior/lovers Achilles and Patroclus and the Greek king Agamemnon. Brown describes it as a series of love stories, set against the backdrop of an interminable Trojan War.

The third longest of Shakespeare’s plays, “Troilus” blends bawdy humor with dark themes. It may not have been produced at all until the 20th century, Brown said, and APT has never staged it before.

“It’s a terribly modern play,” said Brown, who has directed 11 shows at APT since 1999. “It has confused scholars … it’s been placed in the comedy category, the tragedy category, the history category.

“That’s what I like about it. It defies categorization.”

Part of the joy of “Troilus and Cressida” for Brown is that the audience won’t know what’s going to happen to the titular lovers, like they do in the ubiquitous “Romeo and Juliet.”

Brown also likes the tension between “mythic war,” the reasons we tell ourselves we fight, and “real war,” which happens in the field. Shakespeare took icons and made them into real people.

The Greek and Trojan warriors “are human,” Brown said. “He doesn’t judge them. They’re flawed. They’re guided by lust and greed and power and love and family, all the things we all are.”


Local director Greg Harris, like Brown, is taking on a rarely produced “problem” play this August — Shakespeare’s “Pericles” — at Broom Street Theater.

Harris will use just seven actors for 50 characters, including the chorus. The theater offers little budget, so actors will perform in their street clothes with a few token props and no set.

“What’s exciting about Shakespeare right now is that people are open to new approaches,” Harris said. “Whether they be old warhorses like ‘Comedy of Errors’ or ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ or lesser-known plays like ‘Timon of Athens,’ ‘Pericles,’ ‘Coriolanus’ … every year I’m hearing about a production somewhere in the world of a play people have written off that is blowing people’s minds.”

In contrast to more traditional stagings, like the new Madison Shakespeare Company’s abridged production of “Julius Caesar” that ran in July, Harris wants to do something quite different, even shocking.

“People expect to be bored at Shakespeare,” Harris said. “If you do a boring production, no one’s going to bat an eye, and they’re going to think they have to like it.”

Some companies, he said, celebrate Shakespeare to the point where performers and directors “build a shrine around him.”

“That’s antithetical to theater,” Harris said.

In addition to having each cast member play many parts, Harris has trimmed some scenes from “Pericles” in an attempt to keep it concise and emphasize the family relationships in the play. Like “Troilus,” it’s quite dark — there are themes of incest, prostitution and abandonment. Pericles, the prince of Tyre, solves a riddle that exposes incest between a king and his daughter. He flees by ship, wins a princess as his bride in a jousting match, then tosses her overboard when (he thinks) she dies in childbirth. Many more complications ensue before he is reunited with his family.

The tone and style varies because “Pericles” probably had more than one author. George Wilkins likely wrote the first nine scenes, and Shakespeare is thought to have written the rest.

“I have a lot of freedom with it,” Harris said. “I want to honor the intention of the text, even when I’m doing what you could call an adaptation.”


The only ensemble producing uncut Shakespeare is one of the most unusual theater companies in the state and a Madison institution. Young Shakespeare Players, located off Monroe Street, has been teaching 10-year-olds about fairies, fools and Falstaff for more than three decades.

The company produced “King Lear” earlier this summer, and is currently running the first two “Henry” plays in repertory through the coming weekend. “As You Like It” opens Aug. 17.

Kids ages 7 to 18 can participate in YSP. There are two or three casts per show. Young actors learn their parts with the help of audio study guides recorded by co-founder Richard DiPrima.

Arianna Karp, 24, began performing with YSP when she was 13 years old. She returned to Madison with a B.A. in literature and theater from Reed College in Portland, Ore., and is now YSP’s chief intern director.

She’s particularly fond of “Henry IV,” which the veterans’ ensemble (actors ages 14-26) will perform through Sunday, Aug. 12.

“More than any other Shakespeare play, it presents the entire world of 1400s England,” Karp said. “Henry IV and his court, and chivalry and rebellion, and the world of the common people in the tavern, with Falstaff.

“It’s just a perfect blend of all classes of society,” she said. “Most of us get to play multiple roles, so you play one person from each of these worlds.”

Greer DuBois, 19, recently finished her freshman year at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and is directing “As You Like It.” She said the camaraderie in “Henry IV, part 1” is part of why the group wanted to stage it.

“As we stage the tavern scenes, we take everyone in the cast and put them onstage, and basically have a big party onstage for half an hour,” DuBois said. “It’s like the best thing.”

Karp and DuBois agree that the text of Shakespeare continues to fascinate, as their understanding of the plays changes.

“You could study a scene your entire life and you’d be finding new things after 50 years,” Karp said. “The language is so packed, but at the same time you have to let go of the intricate meanings and speak the lines as the character.

“I think anyone who’s gone through this program would say that (Shakespeare) is pretty addictive stuff.”

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