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Shakespeare & Company's First Season in its New Home

Reviews of Macbeth, Henry V, Henry VI, The Valley of Decision, and Golda's Balcony.

Shakespeare & Company celebrated its 25th anniversary with a full season in its new home grounds, a 63-acre estate in Lenox, Mass. Seven productions ran in repertory on three different stages. In this season of new beginnings, two of the shows are Shakespearean plays the company has not produced before, and two are world premieres.

There's also a conscious theme running through the repertory this season. In this year of uncertainty and upheaval, when the world stage is dominated by wars and rumors of wars, these plays all focus, in one way or another, on motifs of violence, idealism and power.

Macbeth is Shakespeare's quintessential study of vaulting ambition. As a mirror of our own dangerous times, director Tina Packer has set her distinctly non-traditional production in a kind of surreal present. The Scottish military men are garbed in olive drab combat gear and their civvies are three-piece suits. But this is no literal-minded modern-dress rendition. Ancient supernatural powers are alive in this world, where broadswords coexist with M-16s, and witches are sometimes disembodied voices and sometimes demented lab technicians.

This company practices a spare, muscular brand of Shakespeare. There's a premium on clarity of language, but no lack of feeling. Emotion arises from meaning. When Dan McCleary, as Macbeth, contemplates murdering his king, he's not just reaching for the knife, he's thinking it through. And when Carolyn Roberts, an impetuous Lady Macbeth, scolds her husband for his indecisiveness, you can see the annoyance subtly beginning to drive her crazy.

The production's constant swirl of anachronism brings the play up to date while anchoring it in a primitive netherworld.

Packer's production is taut and spirited, and features a wonderful comic turn by Michael Hammond as the drunken porter that takes outrageous and hilarious liberties with the text, in the best tradition of theatrical clowning. But sometimes Packer's inventiveness strains too hard, makes too many points at once, and scatters its focus.

Jonathan Epstein's staging of Henry V is no less eclectic and irreverent, but it is also completely successful. This is Shakespeare's great patriotic splurge, a hymn to self-righteous imperialism. But it's also a moving portrait of war seen from the trenches; it elevates the humble along with the mighty. And it's from this perspective that Epstein takes his production's startling central image -- not a sword or a crown, but a plastic clown's nose. All ten actors stick these red bulbs on their noses from time to time, to portray the anonymous common people at the fringes of the historical pageant -- silent commentators caught up in the passing/military/parade. It's a strange convention that works surprisingly well, underlining the play's self-proclaimed theatricality and supporting the production's ensemble style, in which the entire company acts as a kind of proletarian Greek chorus.

Allyn Burrows is a stirring and down-to-earth Henry, rallying his ragtag troops with a sense of fellow-feeling, not noblesse oblige. Newcomer Susanna Apgar plays a cocky/wistful boy soldier one moment, and the Princess of France next, both with great energy and heart -- the two scenes when the Princess practices her halting English on the English king may be the most sweet and funny renditions of these passages I've seen. Jonathan Croy is perfect and hilarious as the rumbustious coward, Pistol.

Over the next couple of years, Shakespeare & Company will construct an exact replica of the Rose Theatre, the thatched, half-timbered playhouse where Shakespeare's first plays were produced. Among the earliest of these was the three-part chronicle of Henry VI, the weak son of Henry V, during whose reign all his father's conquests in France were lost. This summer, on a temporary outdoor stage at the site of the new Rose, a brief, two-part condensation of this rarely produced trilogy could be seen.

Director Jenna Ware has pared nine hours of text into two swift 90-minute segments, which play on alternating days. Instead of trying to cover a little bit of everything, she focuses on the one narrative line that runs through all three plays -- the struggle for power between the houses of York and Lancaster known as the Wars of the Roses. This cancels enormous chunks of the text -- for example, the one character many people associate with the plays, Joan of Arc, is completely missing -- but it makes for a digestible and comprehensible whole.

The cast of Henry VI are young actors in Shakespeare & Company's training program, with varying levels of experience and accomplishment. While almost all the play's characters are male, more than half the 16-member cast is female. The production's gender-blind casting is not just a matter of necessity, though. Many of the major roles -- including King Henry in both parts -- are taken by women, and that's because, with few exceptions, they are the most talented performers here. Among these is a future star, Georgia Adamson, whose stage presence is positively galvanic and whose unabashed Australian accent fits in perfectly with the company's eclectic style.

Until this year, Shakespeare & Company made its home a mile down the road, at the Mount, the country estate of novelist Edith Wharton. Dramatizations of Wharton stories have perennially complemented the Shakespearean menu. As a farewell to that connection, this season features revivals of two popular Wharton one-acts and a brand-new adaptation -- by Wharton's resident dramatizer, Dennis Krausnick -- of Wharton's first, rather atypical, novel. The Valley of Decision slides into the season's thematic focus from a somewhat different direction. It's set in a fictional Italian duchy in the 1780s, when democratic ideals were sweeping across Europe, ignited by the American and French revolutions and threatening the traditional power structures sustained by the aristocracy and clergy.

Count Valsecca is a reformer who wants to create a constitutional democracy in his little fiefdom. His muse of freedom is Fulvia Vivaldi, a freethinking commoner who becomes the lord's mistress in order to be with him and fulfill their mission. Ethan Flower and Elizabeth Aspenlieder are the revolutionary lovers, heading a strong cast that also includes Michael Burnet as a Thomas Paine-ish radical firebrand, Andrew Borthwick-Leslie as an aristocrat who talks equality but can't stand the masses, Catherine Taylor-Williams as a vain but clear-eyed patrician, and Mel Cobb as a smooth-as-silk courtier.

The Wharton plays are staged in Spring Lawn, the Edwardian mansion that anchors the estate, in an elegant drawing room that is a virtual duplicate of the parlor at the Mount. This is also the venue for Golda's Balcony, a new one-woman play by William Gibson. It stars Annette Miller as Golda Meir, one of the founders of the state of Israel. This is one of those one-person shows in which a famous figure tells her story to the audience, interspersing historical details with anecdotes both humorous and poignant.

Here we find Meir as Prime Minister of Israel during the so-called Yom Kippur War of October 1973, when Israel fought back from a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. She's in her office, barking orders over the phone to her generals and pleading with the Nixon administration for help. In the lulls she fills us in on her biography and that of her country -- raised in Milwaukee by Russian immigrant parents, emigrating to Palestine in the 1920s, drawn by the ideals of Zionism and socialism, helping to create the kibbutz movement and then the state of Israel. It's a biased and limited version of history, of course, since it's Golda who's talking. We see the hero of the Yom Kippur War, not the Prime Minister who was forced to resign soon afterward because Israel had been caught so unprepared.

There's more than a hint of a parallel between Gibson's Golda and Shakespeare's Henry V -- both of them spirited, single-minded warrior-patriots with a common touch and a one-sided sense of historical inevitability. And there's a neat connection between the two plays' appeal to their audiences' sense of theater. Just as Shakespeare's chorus says, "Let us on your imaginary forces work," Annette Miller, at the beginning of her mesmerizing performance, strides onto the stage as herself and lets us know she's not going to try to make us believe she is Golda Meir. "No wig, no swollen leg, no false nose," she announces. "Use your imagination."


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