Friday, April 30, 2010

Profile: Preparing Shakespeare "Original Practices" in the Hidden Room

The hidden room of the Hidden Room Theatre is a long, wide hall, very much like the court spaces used by Shakespeare's company when they performed for royalty. Two or three ranks of padded chairs run the length of the hall and a platform with ornate armchairs stands at one end. That space resembles the Rollins Theatre configuration used recently by Austin Shakespeare for Shiller’s Mary Stuart.

The “original practices” version of The Taming of the Shrew that opens this coming weekend will have a touch of the conspiratorial and mysterious to it, for you’ll receive a password and a rendez-vous point in downtown Austin, rather than a theatre address. If you’re there at the right time and the right place, a company member will meet you and guide you to a candle lit trail to the hidden room.

Why the mystery? For fun, in part, and probably also to reinforce the message that you will be stepping back to the theatre practices of another time. “Original practices” means a vigorous player-centered approach to Shakespeare’s text, with a minimum of decoration and scenery, and no women in the cast.

Ryan Crowder Shrew Hidden RoomThe fact that all female roles will be played by male actors brings a challenge and a mystery for our acutely gender-conscious society. For example, how will Ryan Crowder as Kate handle being romanced by Judd Ferris as Petruccio?

We can expect the audience to laugh even more explosively at the war of the sexes when it’s highlighted by cross-dressing and cross-gender mimicry – remember, for example, the drolleries of Austin Shakespeare’s all-women staged reading of the same play last month. An additional, unseen delicious touch is that this project is directed by the very womanly Beth Burns, assisted by Stephanie Delk.

I visited the hidden room early in the rehearsal process, welcomed by Burns for an afternoon session of work that began with Act IV, Scene 2, a scene featuring Benjamin Summers playing Lucentio, the wealthy student disguising himself as a tutor, and Ryan Hamilton as Bianca, Kate’s younger sister and the object of his ardent affections. In ironic celebration of his transformation, Hamilton had made a video for YouTube of his shaving – sacrificing? – a beard of soldierly aspect, far superior to any I’ve ever worn on my chin.

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