NOTES FROM REGIONAL THEATREThe reading of Shakespearean sonnets seems best suited for solitary meditation, say in an easy chair in front of a roaring fire. But the Acting Company, which bills itself as "America's leading touring repertory company," has a come up with a more unexpected concept geared to mine the emotional richness of seven out of the many odes that Shakespeare penned in the late 16th century, many of them written to a young man of obvious beauty and high station, the rest to the timeless and mysterious "dark lady of the sonnets."
Love's Fire: Fresh Numbers by Seven American Playwrights, which the Acting Company is touring in repertory with a new production of Romeo & Juliet throughout the first half of 1998, is a series of seven short plays based on sonnets and commissioned from playwrights Eric Bogosian, William Finn, John Guare, Marsha Norman, Ntozake Shange, Wendy Wasserstein and Tony Kushner. For example, the Kushner playlet, based on Sonnet 75, is a dialogue between a young man and his female shrink with help from figments of their respective imaginations, while Wendy Wasser-stein's, based on Sonnet 94, explores the tensions between an affluent couple as they await a guest of honor at a Hamptons society benefit.
The drama, which premiered last month at Minneapolis's Guthrie Theater Lab, plays regional and university theatres in New York, Vermont and Connecticut before heading south for engagements in the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee. In May the company then travels to perform Love's Fire at the Barbican Centre in London, as part of the three-month-long "Inventing America" Festival, which will also feature works by Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars and Twyla Tharp among others.
"The sonnets clearly lent themselves to drama," says Margot Harley, managing director of the company that she co-founded in 1972 with the late John Houseman out of the first graduating class of Juilliard's drama division. "What the playwrights have been able to do is capture the emotional resonance of the sonnets in their distinctive voices, and since the sonnets are read at the end of each playlet, the plays help to open up your eyes to what the sonnet is saying . . . What will surprise many is the humor which the playwrights have been able to find in them."
Both Love's Fire, directed by Mark Lamos, and Romeo & Juliet, directed by James Bundy, are part of the Acting Company's 25th anniversary season, which will be bookended by New York engagements: Romeo & Juliet plays the New Victory Jan. 29-Feb. 8; Love's Fire will play June 12-28 at a yet-to-be announced Manhattan theatre. Now made up of 13 alumni from major acting institutions, the Acting Company continues to fulfill its original mandate: to train, nurture and develop American classical actors through the experience of bringing drama to those audiences who have few opportunities to see theatre. "It's an important idea. That's why we've been able to survive so long," said Harley, noting that actors who took advantage of the opportunities afforded them in the Acting Company -- immersion in the classics as well as contemporary drama, the rigors of touring, playing leads as well as minor roles -- went on to have some of the better careers. Such distinguished alumni as actors Patti LuPone, Kevin Kline, David Ogden Stiers and director Gerald Gutierrez tend to bear her out.
-- By Patrick Pacheco