The Bard, up close and personal

Audience participation is key for the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta

In a modest theater in Atlanta, a 10-year-old experiment with the Bard dashes on at a radical clip. The recently renovated Shakespeare Tavern, home of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, serves fabulous gourmet food cafeteria-style. But it's nobody's idea of a dinner theater. The atmosphere is meant to induce a collective memory of Elizabethan ease and good cheer, to help the audience remember that the classics are classic because they speak to us.

"Communion" is a word not often bandied about in the arts these days - so much of which reflects alienation. But it does fit this theater company that is so blatantly engaged with the search for meaning - the meaning of human experience, and of our relationship to each other.

"We believe that the essence of theater is the communion of actor, audience, and playwright," says artistic director Jeff Watkins. "So rather than going into a room and watching people behave or perform a play, we believe that a key ingredient, a key issue is the interaction of actor and audience."

Actors look the audience in the eye and talk to it, eagerly embracing its presence, routinely breaking the "fourth wall."

It's so up close and personal you can gaze right into the eyes of Mephistophilis as he bends over your table (in Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus") or into Cleopatra's exotic gaze (in Shakespeare's "Antony & Cleopatra," through Dec. 17).

"We're digging around trying to find more of those things, and we feel very fortunate that in Shakespeare's day there was a theatrical tradition of enormous power and passion and creativity," Mr. Watkins says.

"From what we can tell, it had a way of transfiguring people through that communion, through poetry."

Sometimes, as with the recent production of "Doctor Faustus," the show is done in the round. But most often, the plays are performed the way they might have been at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London - on a stage set above the pit, with the actors using the whole space of the theater - including the balconies - for entrances and exits, stage fights, and intimate moments.

In fact, the Atlanta Shakespeare Company was the first American company to be asked to perform at London's Globe, in 1995.

"The Elizabethans had a much more difficult time controlling their audience," Watkins says. "Modern audiences are ... willing to come sit in the corner of the room in the dark and be bored. Well, we don't let you do that at our theater. We're in your face, we're standing on your table, we go nuts!"

At the Tavern, text is supreme. Watkins and fellows pore over Shakespeare's plays like some medieval cult or Talmudic scholars, he jokes, comparing various editions to get the meaning as close as possible to Shakespeare's own, trying to find the reality underlying a line, asking, "Where's the wisdom of this? Where's the truth of this? Is this a window onto another way of thinking, another way of being?"

Even so, there is nothing "academic" about their approach. The authenticity does not get in the way of the excitement - or the fun. And it can be an incredibly exhilarating experience.

It's obvious that exhilaration comes from the company's lively engagement with the meaning of the plays. Distilling Marlowe's complex tale of a learned man who sells his soul to the devil (to learn the secrets of hell) into a two-man show takes wit, daring, and insight into the deepest corners of the play's meaning. It is fundamentally engaged in revealing what it means to be human.

"There's great cruelty in the world, great pain; there's great love, honor, and there's dishonor," Watkins says. "If you seek to live a righteous life, and you seek to live a pure life, you have to have an understanding of all those things."

Great art is always about the search for meaning in life, he says passionately. We're all looking for truth. "We crave big plays, big events; heaven and hell, the fate of nations. We're after poetry, big themes, high stakes, important stuff. We're not into what we call kitchen-sink drama," Watkins says. "World classics is what we're interested in. It can be from any culture, any century. We've written several plays ourselves and [performed] those. We play myths; we even [staged] a musical based on Homer's 'Odyssey.' "

Good art is greater than the person who creates it, he continues, greater than the culture of the creator. The truth in Shakespeare [or Marlowe, or Tennessee Williams] transcends the milieu of the creator and the creator's culture - even the creator's life.

"Truth, to some degree, is absolute," he says. "If [something] isn't absolute, chances are it's only a shade of the truth, or maybe it's not truth at all."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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