Seeing Shakespeare Again For The First Time

For the international tour that brings them to the Huntington, Propeller will be doing two works — Richard III and The Comedy of Errors — on alternating nights with the same cast of fourteen actors. The actor who plays Lady Anne in Richard III one night may play Dromio in The Comedy of Errors the next. A set used for a bloody battle transforms into a scene for frolicking. The actors, many of whom are multi-talented musicians, underscore the action throughout both plays.

In the centuries since Shakespeare wrote his plays, his characters have been explored as melodramatic heroes and villains, as avant-garde constructs, and most often in the past century, through the lens of psychological realism as naturalistic human beings. Propeller Theatre Company — from its eclectic designs to its physically demanding stagings — was designed to break through the stultifying influence of naturalism on Shakespeare interpretations in recent years. The company's artistic director Edward Hall (who also directed the 2009 Huntington production of Two Men of Florence) throws out all contemporary assumptions about how Shakespeare should be done.

"We don't want to make the plays 'accessible,' as this implies that they need dumbing down in order to be understood," Hall says. Though he consciously hopes that audiences will understand their performances throughout, Hall believes Shakespeare consciously wrote for two audiences at the same time: the Court and the groundlings. One was highly schooled, able to follow the most complicated passages of verse, the other was illiterate and uneducated.

Hall's approach echoes this duality in Shakespeare's plays. The company brings a rigorous approach to text, spending as many as five days of rehearsal in table work as a company, teasing apart the most complicated speeches. When the actors get on their feet, though, Hall encourages his company to physically explore the plays, and they regularly find themselves leaping, jumping, and chasing each other around the stage in testosterone-fueled frenzy. (Like Shakespeare's own company, all of Hall's actors are men.) "As directed by Edward Hall, the Propeller Company specializes in knuckle-duster Shakespeare that digs for the harshness beneath the lyricism," writes Ben Brantley in The New York Times, describing Propeller's performances as "funny, antic, bawdy."

Casting men as women is one of Hall's strategies to reclaim the theatricality of Shakespeare, though he believes the process for the actor is less radical than some might think. With any role, he explains, "you have to play the character first. If you're playing Hamlet or you're playing a woman, the act of acting is exactly the same. You're casting yourself into somebody's shoes who is not you." The smart, practical approach to the actors' gender switching has become many critics' favorite aspect of Propeller productions. "Propeller plumbed the lines of the female characters for their dignity, their strength, and their intelligence. All were played for their grit and strength," Jane Collins writes for Shakespeare Bulletin. "Propeller's women came closer to my conception of these characters than I have seen in productions done with actresses. This is a great irony. My favorite Shakespearean actresses have hairy chests and receding hairlines. Alas."

Charles Haugland, Literary Associate

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