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More bare Bard
For the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, the play’s the thing

Benjamin Evett, artistic director of the newest theatrical venture in town, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, says the idea to form a company dedicated to stripped-down versions of Shakespeare’s plays "has been brewing in me a long time." In fact, his inspiration dates back to 1977, when he was a 13-year-old on vacation in England. "I saw Macbeth by the Royal Shakespeare Company featuring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench before they were famous. They appeared in a small theater, no more than 150 seats. The staging was very simple, set within a circle drawn on the floor. The actors sat on stools at the side of the stage and watched when they were not in the action. It was the most powerful Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, emphasizing the immediacy of the text and the humanity of it. You could follow it easily."

His childhood memory has translated into a full-blown career change for Evett, a former member of the American Repertory Theatre troupe with more than 50 productions among his acting credits. Now billed as artistic director of the ASP, he plans to mount a 2004-2005 season of three plays with political themes, presented bare-Bard style — "just the actors and the text." The company will make its official debut in October with Richard III. But prospective audience members can get a preview this Monday when the ASP presents a benefit performance of scenes from a variety of the plays titled Political Animals: War, Love & Policy in Shakespeare at the Brattle Theatre.

Although the benefit program will be performed on a conventional proscenium stage, Evett says he aims to mount his productions in "non-conventional spaces that will inform the play, like the nave of a church, or an art gallery, or a loft that’s not been reconstructed. All of the spaces will provide challenges, especially in solving the lighting problem, one technical aspect I think is very important." He’s also had his nose pressed against the glass window of the storefront recently abandoned by Workbench at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Putnam Avenue just outside Harvard Square. "We’d like to bring the shows to unexpected spaces and move around for each new production."

In line with the dictum that all that’s needed for theater is "two boards and a passion," Evett enlisted his peers in the local acting pool for support early on. "I called up these people and invited them over for dinner. We had an intense evening. They are very positive on the project." Evett himself performed in ART productions when he was an undergraduate at Harvard, graduating in 1986 into the company. Since leaving last year, he’s appeared in shows at New Repertory Theatre as well as in last summer’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company staging of Macbeth on Boston Common. Now, he says, he’s retired from acting to concentrate on the ASP (he’ll direct Richard III). But the company of actors whom he’s signed on to the project and who’ll appear in the benefit reads like a punch list of local theater royalty: Ken Cheeseman, Sarah Douglas, Jennie Israel, John Kuntz, Paula Langton, Doug Lockwood, Marya Lowry, Bill Mootos, Sarah Newhouse, Paula Plum, Richard Snee, Bobbie Steinbach, and Robert Walsh. "In the productions of Shakespeare that I have done, the most exciting performance has been the final run-through in the rehearsal hall without costumes or sets. We are trying to re-create that experience." His notion offers a heady prospect for actors too often buried under directorial concepts and flossy costume schemes in an attempt to update Shakespeare’s works and make them relevant.

The proposed first-season budget of $300,000, to be funded by donations and ticket sales, will cover actors’ salaries, publicity, and space rentals for three plays, with Measure for Measure and Julius Caesar to follow Richard III. Evett says he’ll offer 14 Equity contracts for Richard III to cover the 37 characters in the play. "The level of experience to do this work needs expert actors. We must pay them properly. The largest amount of the budget will go for salaries."

But the most daunting task he faces is making a case for another Shakespeare troupe in Massachusetts. Shakespeare & Company owns the Berkshires; Steven Maler’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, now allied with the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, has attracted a large audience for its summer productions on the Common. "I don’t see a conflict, because our style of production is so different," Evett says. "We are a winter company. Steve has been very supportive. He did not feel at all that we were stepping on his toes. Both he and I feel the more Shakespeare, the merrier."

Political Animals: Love, War & Policy in Shakespeare plays at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle Street in Harvard Square, this Monday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50, and it’s a tax-deductible contribution; call (617) 499-6982 or visit www.actorsshakespeareproject.org

Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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