"William Shakespeare—a man from a hick town with a high school education."
With that disarming characterization, Shakespeare & Company begins to demystify The Greatest Poet of All Time. The show's title, Shakespeare and the Language That Shaped a World, is as much a mouthful as some of Will's speeches (among themselves, the company condenses it to SLAW). But the whirlwind, high-energy presentation is compact, entertaining, often riotous and totally accessible.
The program was devised some 20 years ago by Kevin G. Coleman, the company's director of education. The 45-minute presentation, followed by an optional hands-on workshop for participants, is intended mainly for kids and performed mainly in schools, but it's enjoyable and instructive for grown-ups too. At a public performance last weekend, even this Bardolator learned a thing or two, laughed a lot, and put aside his critic's notebook to join in the workshop.
Before the show, I looked in on the six young actors warming up on the bare stage of the company's black-box theater. As Kelly Galvin, Alexandra Lincoln and David Joseph stretched and vocalized, Brittany Morgan and Ryan Winkles ran through the moves of a broadsword fight. Moments later, Enrico Spada was loping across the playing space with Morgan astride his back.
This is David Joseph's fifth year with the SLAW program. Like his cohorts, he's a non-Equity company member who does a variety of jobs in the sprawling S&Co operation as well as acting in its mainstage productions. "I just love this piece," he tells me. "It's fun to perform in, and I get to play Hamlet, Romeo and Shylock all in one show. How can you go wrong?"
For Kelly Galvin, SLAW represents "a great gateway to Shakespeare. For some of the young children, it's their first experience. I love being a part of that. Instead of reading Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade and thinking it's boring, their first encounter is fun."
Fun, indeed. From the very first minute of the performance, the stage explodes with jokes and hijinks. While Joseph's co-players deliver a brisk cascade of famous lines—"All the world's a stage... Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears... Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"—he interjects "To be or not to be!" at every opportunity, like an eager schoolboy who knows the answer to the question "What's Shakespeare's most famous speech?"
Snippets of text alternate with snatches of biography and history: "1564. In the little town of Stratford-on-Avon, about 100 miles outside London, William Shakespeare was born." We see young Will—Ryan Winkles in a Red Sox cap—traveling to London to seek his fortune. "In England, then and now, London was the place—New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles rolled into one. Stratford was, well... Otis."
Morgan and Winkles' swordfight, enacted within bladeswipe distance of the front row, illustrates a scene from Henry VI Part 1, an obscure passage featuring one of Shakespeare's most fleetingly minor characters, but one today's audience knows well: Joan of Arc. The human horseback ride Spada and Morgan were practicing turns out to be part of lovesick Helena's frantic pursuit of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a slapstick chase in which the actions speak louder than the words.
Rolling on a torrent of scene fragments, fun facts and horseplay, the show is half over before we're treated to a sustained block of Shakespearean dialogue—inevitably, the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, "the most famous love scene ever written," performed with adolescent passion by Galvin and Joseph.
Those timeless words are given weight and context by the knowledge that, as we were told earlier, "The plays were written in a language that was 400 years younger than the English we speak now—younger, more exciting, more raw and more alive." That's illustrated by a modern Romeo first laying eyes on Juliet and texting his friend—"Whoa. Who's the hottie?"—followed by the actual line: "What lady's that, which doth enrich the hand of yonder knight?"
"Shakespeare changed the language we inherit," Galvin tells us. "He changed the way that we are able to express our feelings and articulate our thoughts. This language, in a very real, tangible, daily way, has shaped our world."
There are knowing swipes at the traditional means of inflicting Shakespeare on students. "Unlike Shakespeare's other plays, Julius Caesar is very short, it's about real people that really lived, and there's not a single dirty joke. As a result, it has been required reading in almost every English-speaking high school in the world."
And then, to remedy that offense, the actors share a few semi-smutty jokes from the canon before segueing into a lip-smacking sampler of Shakespearean insults: "A base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, lily-livered, whoreson, glass-gazing, finical rogue!"
Shakespeare, the players remind us with Hamlet's words, holds "the mirror up to nature." His plays, Alexandra Lincoln says, "are filled with sorrow and pity, with fear and rage, with violence and injustice. Just like the world he lived in. Just like the world we live in."
Most of the audience, kids and adults alike, join the post-show workshop on the stage. It begins in a big circle with actors' physical and vocal warmup: stretches, shake-outs and tongue twisters: Topeka bodega Topeka bodega.... Then we go around the circle speaking a phrase from The Tempest—"call'd forth the mutinous winds"—one word per person, each round giving it more oomph. We're then divided into five groups according to which word we've spoken. I'm in the "mutinous" group, joining seven other participants aged 10 years and up.
From eight lines of Shakespearean verse, we're to create a two-minute playlet. Our group's passage is from a confrontation in The Tempest between the magician Prospero and the half-tamed monster Caliban, though that information isn't supplied. Brittany Morgan tells us, "In Shakespeare's time, the players directed themselves. So work together as a group. Set your scene anywhere, it can have something to do with the play or not, and just have fun." Taking a reference to the "knotty entrails" of a oak tree as our cue, we decide to become a forest. We assume arm-akimbo poses, make whistling wind noises, and when the script says "... howled away 12 winters," we howl across the stage.
After each group shows off its instant playmaking effort, we gather in a circle to debrief. What did we expect the program to be like, Galvin wants to know. "I thought it was going to be boring, but it wasn't," says one of my young castmates. What about working with Shakespeare's words? "The words were confusing," another youngster admits. "And surprising!"
What did you notice about using Shakespeare's words to create your piece? "I was struck by the versatility of the text," says one of the grownups. Another adds, "A lot of people get really intimidated by Shakespeare. All this made it easily approachable and fun to do."
Shakespeare and the Language That Shaped a World: April 15, 19, 20-21, 1 p.m., Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, (413) 637-3353, shakespeare.org.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.