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The New Face of Philly Shakespeare

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If you want to find Shakespeare in Philadelphia, don’t go looking for the guy with the piercing eyes, receding hairline, and high pointy collar you’ve seen on all the book jackets and posters. In fact, you probably don’t want to bother looking for his face at all: it’s been retired.

Philadelphia Shakespeare TheatreSay what?

That’s right, earlier this year the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre—the Bard’s very own home here in Philly—got a new name and a new look. The company, dedicated to making the best Shakespeare productions and educational programs accessible to all, changed its name from the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival and bid farewell to its original logo—a traditional sketch of Shakespeare’s face, with the Festival name beside in calligraphy-style typeface. In exchange, the Theatre has adopted a name and an image that better reflect its work.

“The ‘Festival’ name evoked, for a lot of people, an institution that only existed for a few weeks a year,” explains John J. Van Heest, Jr., Director of Marketing for Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. “That name was no longer appropriate for our year-round educational programs.” Likewise, the colorful, energetic new logo projects an image that better reflects the inventive, modern interpretations of Shakespeare for which the company is known.

Since 1996, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre has sought to be the premier destination for Shakespeare in Philadelphia. Each Spring, the Theatre stages at least two plays in repertory (that’s theatre lingo for “both plays are running during the same time period”). Over the past 13 years, the company has put on 30 productions, from popular favorites like Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet, to Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays like Cymbeline and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. In recent years, the company has expanded its repertoire (pun intended) to include educational programs aimed at increasing awareness and appreciation of Shakespeare for children and adults. Current programs include: the Open Door Project, which reached at least 4,000 students last season through artist residencies, student matinees, and a school tour; the Connoisseur Shakespeare Series, a sequence of evening programs that offer in-depth examinations of various plays through scholarship, performance, and discussion; and the Classical Acting Academy, which gives young professional actors an immersion experience in classical acting techniques and performance. Next February, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre will also host a Symposium to showcase the unprecedented amount of Shakespeare that will be onstage across the region (five plays in all from March through May!).

Next Spring, the Theatre will revisit two of the Bard’s most beloved plays: Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Macbeth, running March 26 – May 8, 2010, will be a pared down re-imagining of the original. Stripped of subplots, the focus will remain firmly on Macbeth’s consciousness. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, running April 14 – May 9, 2010, will explore all the light and dark facets of love, drawing inspiration from the exuberance and bitterness of Indian music and movement. Both plays will be directed by Carmen Khan, Founder and Artistic Director of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, and they promise to be lively, engaging, and fresh interpretations of these classic plays.

Intrigued?

Fortunately for those who can’t wait till Spring for their Bard fix, the Shakespeare Theatre has added a late summer performance to its schedule. Better still, the show is completely free! Right now, Philly Shakespeare is staging the inaugural production of the Classical Acting Academy, Henry IV, Part I. Though the play features early-career actors and designers (rather than the seasoned actors you’ll see in the Spring), it is anything but amateur. This is an unadorned, well-acted, evocative production. If you’ve never been to the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre or if you’ve never seen Shakespeare performed live, this is definitely a great way in. It even comes complete with some action-packed fight sequences.

Henry IV, Part I, is a coming of age story that actually centers less on the title character and more on his son Hal (who eventually becomes Henry V). Johnny Smith stars as the ne’er-do-well Hal, who is a disappointment to his father, to say the least. When he isn’t getting drunk with his portly pal Falstaff (played by Ethan Lipkin), he’s off robbing people—so that he has money for getting drunk. And yet, the weight of his station is clearly bearing down on him. At one point, Hal acknowledges that his transgressions cannot continue much longer and that he will make a dramatic change of character. Smith plays Hal with convincing ambivalence to the end. Hal’s decision making is pretty blasé as he dispassionately goes along with whatever is expected of him, whether that’s drinking and robbing with Falstaff or going into battle with this father. But Smith also imbues Hal with a playfully boyish Ferris Bueller-esque quality, like nothing can really hurt him, like he knows that no matter what happens it will all work out and he’ll be king by curtain-fall.

Hal’s foil is Henry Percy, or Hotspur, (played by Ian Sullivan) who is leading English forces against the Scottish. Hotspur is the pride of Henry IV’s army, until he disagrees with the king and turns against him. Like Hal, Hotspur is a character in constant turmoil about his place—torn between whom to please. But unlike Hal, Hotspur is quick-tempered and fiery, prone to fits of obstinacy. In one scene, Hotspur’s refusal to stop blathering and listen to his uncle and father is reminiscent of an adolescent tantrum. This is when you realize that Hotspur is something of a man-boy: although old enough to be married and leading an army, he is still young enough to be driven (and undone) by his desire for acknowledgment and honor. Sullivan gets to the heart of Hotspur’s inner turmoil, tempering the character’s arrogance and determination with a very subtle sensitivity.

Because these questions of role and place are so central to the play, director David Stradley chose to make them the cornerstone of the production. Most actors in the 10-member cast play three roles (only Smith, Lipkin, and Sullivan play only one role each), and Stradley used tripling to underline the play’s deeper themes.

“The doubling and tripling was done with an eye towards placing characters in contrast against each other,” Stradley explains in his Director’s Note. “The goal of the doubling was to bring out the universality of human beings making choices—women using masculine qualities at times, men using feminine qualities at times, etc.”

Goal achieved. This casting decision is powerful, without being imposing or overstated, and the actors perform so well in their contrasting roles that it may take several scenes before you recognize them. In this way, I feel like the production acts on the audience almost subconsciously, challenging us to figure out who is who and where do they belong, in the same way that the central characters are asking these questions of themselves.

Henry IV, Part IV, is playing now through Sunday at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are free and available three hours before each performance at the box office. For information, visit www.phillyshakespeare.org