Much ado about Shakespeare
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Wayne Harada
To paraphrase The Bard, the place is the thing.
For its sixth season, the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival will make its debut Wednesday at The ARTS at Marks Garage, employing a thrust stage for the first time.
Thrust staging — commonly a performing platform that extends into the house, with viewers on three sides — is widely used in classical theater. The Globe Theatre in London, where Shakespearean drama thrived, utilizes this format; the Guthrie in Minneapolis, the Circle in the Square on Broadway and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles are contemporary stages embracing thrust staging, too.
This means that three Shakespearean plays, revolving around a theme of "Civil Wars," will bring a wedge of classic drama in a very intimate setting to the downtown arts scene, further validating Chinatown as The Place to Go. "Taming of the Shrew," the romantic comedy, debuts Wednesday; "King John," the not-so-commonly produced historical drama, premieres Aug. 25; and "Titus Andronicus," the grisly revenge tragedy, caps the season beginning Aug. 22.
"This is going to be in-your-face Shakespeare," said Tony Pisculli, festival director. "The ARTS will have 72 seats, and with the thrust stage, the audience will surround the actors. The most remote seat is 10 feet away."
Larger stages, like the festival's Paliku base last summer, "meant pageant quality in our shows," said Pisculli. "We're still having some of that — on a lesser scale — with the focus on the actors."
Elizabeth Wolfe, fresh off her Po'okela Award for "Antigone," is portraying Katharina (Kate) in "Taming of the Shrew." It's her fourth acting stint with the festival; she also previously did costume designing.
"It's one of the most fun parts," Wolfe said of Kate. "I've always loved Shakespeare." She first encountered The Bard — and iambic pentameter — through her high school English teacher and "Romeo and Juliet."
"Shakespeare is very funny and exciting, once you understand, once you get it," Wolfe said. "And the setting (The ARTS at Marks Garage) is perfect, and very intimate — it's like Shakespeare construed it."
Mark Gilbert, portraying Petruchio, who pursues the shrewish Kate, is back on stage after an 8 1/2-year absence.
"Now I remember how much I love it (acting)," he said. "My wife and I used to do shows like 'Tony and Tina's Wedding' at Manoa Valley Theatre, and getting back to Shakespeare is almost like riding a bike, you hope. It may feel a little rusty, but the rust seems to be rubbing off.
"I love the close quarters," Gilbert said of The ARTS. "The intimate setting means it's sensual; it wouldn't read as well on a large stage."
Pisculli said when the festival was searching for a new site this summer, the thrust configuration was a priority. Turns out that a slightly naughty spin-off of Shakespeare, dubbed "Femme Capulet: Romeo and Juliet Remixed" staged at The ARTS earlier this year, was the trial balloon — and clincher.
"For 'Femme Capulet,' this was an exciting configuration," he said. "It worked."
Because the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival was a partner in an office at The ARTS, where auditions have been held, it wasn't too much of a hurdle to acquire the space, albeit by juggling the production calendar, from July to August.
"Some people think (the space) is exciting. Others go, 'Hmmmmmm.' Certainly, we've had to make some adjustments."
The Bard still thrives among a core group "which wants to see as much Shakespeare as possible," Pisculli said. "But there's an increasing group who are not super fans yet; they have an appreciation that's growing."
High schoolers get their first brush with Shakespeare through English classes or by working on a periodic production, often backstage, not on.
"Wrong way to approach the language," said Pisculli.
"When you read the plays, you struggle with interpretation; when you see a work on stage, a lot of work is done for you, conveying a whole lot of meaning in the way things are said, or staged."
Meaning: The play's the thing, better watched than read. OK, read and watched.
Pisculli said that while "Civil Wars" is this year's theme, the festival has no agenda, political or otherwise, about the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
"There's no hidden statement," he said. "But certainly, whenever you're doing a play about war, people bring in their preconceptions. They will find what they want to find in a work. Interestingly, 'King John' (which Pisculli is directing), has a rich play text and is very open to interpretation. It's complex, however, not simplistic; war is bad, kings are bad. You can decide on your own."
Further, Pisculli said "John" — "famous for being obscure" — is laden with close-knit stage combat. "When you have 10 people fighting in a space of 11 by 20 feet, you have to watch for errant swords."
The sparring mates in "Shrew" can be inferred as domestic wars of the sexes; and the bold and often grisly atrocities in "Titus," which Pisculli dubs "one of the most violent plays written," are more about civil than martial issues.
Reach Wayne Harada at firstname.lastname@example.org.