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The Bard is back!

... and he's bigger than ever!

By M.S. MasonArts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 5, 1999


Shakespeare rules.

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The hit movie "Shakespeare in Love" -the latest evidence of America's obsession with the Bard - could dominate this year's Oscars.

But all across the country that hero of the English language, William Shakespeare, is seeing a resurgence of popular enthusiasm for his plays.

Hollywood is having a field day with Will as updated versions of his plays pour out of Tinseltown, fueled by star-power and megabudgets. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" opens in early May with Michele Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline. Kenneth Branagh is making "Love's Labour's Lost" as a musical starring Alicia Silverstone. Ethan Hawke will play in "Hamlet," with Bill Murray as Polonius, set in contemporary New York. "Macbeth" becomes the plot for "Near in Blood" about a high-school football team. A version of "Othello" takes place in a prep school, and "Taming of the Shrew" comes back as "10 Things I Hate About You" - a '90s teen battle-of-the-sexes without the Shakespearean dialogue.

Then there's television. Last Monday's "Cosby" filched its plot from "King Lear" and included a visit from the Bard.

There's no telling where it will all end.

Branagh fueled the feature film

Meanwhile, "Shakespeare in Love" has garnered 13 Academy Award nominations, critical praise, and a repeat audience in theaters. And though many scholars might argue that Shakespeare's popularity never has waned (the Guinness Book of World Records cites 309 film versions of his plays and 41 adaptations), even in theaters his stock is on the rise.

Just 10 years ago Kenneth Branagh, a young actor-director with his own theater company, a prodigious vision, and a diminutive budget, made a stunning motion picture of "Henry V." And though even Mr. Branagh has his detractors, the film's style, clarity, and relevance kindled a new excitement over Shakespeare for many - including many young people.

"Branagh tapped into that teenage audience, the largest and most consistent for movies, and then Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo and Juliet' [1996, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes] went even [further] ... giving us an MTV version of Shakespeare," says Ohio University professor Samuel Crowl, author of "Branagh Renaissance: Imaging Shakespeare in the Age of Film."

Branagh followed "Henry V" with "Much Ado About Nothing" (1993), another low-budget hit that proved Shakespeare could make money. Professor Crowl points to "Hamlet" (1990) with Mel Gibson as important, too. "Shakespeare in Love" was possible because of these modest successes, he says.

Theater professionals point out that over the past 10 years, dozens of theater companies and festivals devoted to Shakespeare have sprung up around the country.

In 1989 when the Shakespeare Theatre Association of North America was formed, only about a dozen companies joined, according to Scott Phillips, a past president and now the artistic director of the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City.

This year, there are 135 in the ranks, with more to come. So great is the need for actors capable of performing Shakespeare that a whole new conservatory headed by the chair of the Julliard drama department, Michael Kahn, will open in June 2000 in association with the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.

"As we approach the 21st century, the preservation of how we do Shakespearean theater is really important," Mr. Kahn says. "Audiences are coming back to Shakespeare. They are hungry for larger and more real experiences than action pictures offer them.

"If it's done well - by actors working at the top of their physical, emotional, and intellectual abilities in plays that are much larger than yourself and that you still completely connect with - it is an exalting experience, more enriching because its form is more complex and beautiful.

"It's an experience you can't get on television," Kahn reminds. It's "4,000 [people] a night at Shakespeare in the Park, all laughing at a 450-year-old joke. The tension between the extraordinary form that Shakespeare used, and the depth of what he wrote about, is very, very special."

'It's a mystery ... '