ASHLAND, ORE. — BBE honest now, have you ever had a problem with ``Shakesfear?'' You know, the belief that plays by the Bard are too long or too complicated?
If this has been your attitude toward the comedies and tragedies, the histories and romances of William Shakespeare, stand by for the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. This young, 11-member professional touring company has a bare-bones approach that is engaging while remaining true to the text.
The company has played everywhere from high school cafeterias at 8 a.m. to the Folger Shakespeare Library's Elizabethan Theatre in Washington and the Edinburgh Festival. It is scheduled for 220 performances in 30 states this year (including the Folger again), and the National Endowment for the Humanities is funding a six-week program this summer in which the company will teach 24 college and university professors.
It's called ``express'' because each play takes no more than ``the two hours' traffic of our stage,'' as Shakespeare put it in ``Romeo and Juliet.'' But these are not stripped-down versions. With no intermission and no scene changes, it just takes less time. It also keeps production costs down.
A recent performance of ``Much Ado About Nothing'' at Southern Oregon State College in Ashland, Ore., was typical. An audience of about 150 sat around three sides of a set of risers in a meeting room. The 11 actors were all onstage throughout the performance, with those not in the scene sitting quietly upstage on wooden boxes.
All actors wore the same basic clothing: black pants, white loose-fitting shirts, and their trademark Converse All-Star high-top sneakers.
There were many asides to the audience, and one or two cast members hopped off the stage to play directly to an individual. The audience connected with the actors throughout the two hours, from the junior high school class from Modesto, Calif., to the college drama students, to the adults, including professors of Shakespeare. It helped that the crowd had been warmed up by two actors playing guitars and singing Joe Jackson's ``Fools in Love.'' (Two years ago, the warm-up number for ``Macbeth'' was - appropriately - ``Wave of Mutilation'' by the Pixies.)
Shenandoah Shakespeare Express was started in 1988 by Ralph Cohen, professor of English at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., together with Jim Warren, one of Mr. Cohen's then-students who is now the company's managing director.
The actors are in their 20s and 30s, with drama degrees and experience in other acting companies. In putting together the company each season, directors Cohen and Warren look for versatile performers, those who have an easy way with an audience , but who also have the depth of understanding necessary to communicate the meaning of Shakespeare's text. Also important is the ability to get along with a small team that spends months on the road.
They do three plays in repertory. This year it's ``Much Ado,'' ``Othello,'' and ``The Taming of the Shrew.'' Working without props, scenery, or costumes, and therefore without the ability to set the plays in a particular period or present a director's ``concept,'' may seem challenging, says Cohen. ``But that leaves us with the best scripts ever written.''
``It's the actor, the text, and the audience, and that's it,'' Mr. Warren says. ``And because of this we can release the magic of the play.''
One thing very much like Shakespeare's time is the lack of directed lighting and an audience that isn't hidden in the dark. ``You leave the lights on and everything changes,'' Cohen says. ``You get a real community feeling. Getting the audience engaged is my favorite thing about the way we do Shakespeare.''
What this also means is that audiences may have to work harder to feel the murderous tension of ``Macbeth'' or ``Richard III,'' for example, or to see the Battle of Agincourt in ``Henry V.'' But audiences and critics are responding positively, and it may be (as Warren says) that ``in the age of television, people are hungering for ways to use their imagination.''
``What we're trying to do,'' Cohen adds, ``is show that [Shakespeare] isn't an altar to worship at, that it still moves us at a human level, and that we should go expecting to enjoy ourselves - literally - and that we come away enjoying each other.'' This is most important, he adds, for young people who may be intimidated by classical theater.
``If we can get kids to see Shakespeare that way,'' he says, ``then we lower the fear.''
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