Bringing Shakespeare's magic to Cecil County
Oct 26, 2018 01:14PM
● By J. Chambless
The ensemble presented 'Macbeth' at the Millburn Stone Theater. The group uses no sets, and minimal costume pieces.
By John Chambless
The majesty of William Shakespeare's
words is capturing new audiences in Cecil County as the Susquehanna
Shakespeare Ensemble brings his comedies and dramas to the region.
The company, which is just under two years old, works diligently to streamline Shakespeare's plays and present them without the frills that could get in the way of his timeless messages. Performing on bare stages, with contemporary clothing, the troupe puts the raw power of acting and wordplay right in the audience's lap.
During an interview last month, company member Charlie Johnson looked back at the origin of the group, as well as its wide-open future, notably a run of shows at the Elk forge Inn and Sugarhouse. Standing in the tented patio area where the shows are presented while patrons dine, Johnson credited Marshall B Garrett with the formation of the ensemble.
“It was Marshall's idea. He went to school for it, and went to grad school specifically for Shakespeare,” Johnson said. “He works as company manager at Center Stage in Baltimore. He used to be the production manager at the Millburn Stone Theater at Cecil College. A lot of the people who work with him on these shows met him there. But we have actors from all over, basically. I met him through Millburn Stone, where we did 'As You Like It' together.”
Having built up a regular core of actors who enjoyed performing Shakespeare's works, Garrett wanted to create a group that would tour to places throughout the region -- not relying on a home base, but putting a fresh, contemporary spin on Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies wherever they could find space.
“I did a lot of theater in high school, and I went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York for musical theater,” Johnson said. “I started getting into Shakespeare there, when we'd do scenes from different plays. I realized how much fun it was, and when I came back home from school, I did 'As You Like It' with Marshall. Then I started doing a lot more.”
For the group's production of “Hamlet,” Johnson took on the title role, “which was very hard,” he said, laughing. Cut to a lean 90 minutes (some versions can run over four hours), the show was staged with a house rock band that played modern songs that reflected the action and emotional themes on stage. The actors wore T-shirts emblazoned with sentiments their characters would express. Ophelia, for instance, wore an “I loveth Hamlet” shirt. Characters even stepped into the band to sing or play at a few points.
For Johnson, the chance to deliver Hamlet's words to an audience member perhaps three feet away brings an immediacy to the action that's hard to resist. “We use neutral lighting, so the cast and the audience is lit. That's important because we talk to the audience a lot,” he said. “The audience and the cast are on the same level. And being able to tell people the show is only 90 minutes can be a good selling point,” he added, laughing.
The ensemble works very quickly. Rehearsing “The Tempest,” for instance, was a matter of four intense rehearsals. “We don't memorize the lines completely. We have books in hand, although we are very familiar with the lines,” he said. “One of the things we do is work with people who know Shakespeare well enough that we can have a very short rehearsal period. It's intense, but it's a lot of fun. It's a good feeling when you have a show that's under so much pressure and it comes out so well every time.”
The company has been asked to perform a once-a-month Shakespeare productions at the Sugarhouse Barn at the Elk Forge Inn. Owner LeAnn Lenderman enjoyed the process of working with the company on “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “As You Like It” last year, and asked for more. The result is a series of one-night dinner theater shows. Nov. 30 will be “Much Ado About Nothing,” Jan. 5 is “Twelfth Night,” Feb. 14 and 15 is “Shakespeare's Lovers” (a collection of romantic short scenes and speeches), and March 22 is “Julius Caesar.”
Johnson said that the audience reaction to the streamlined, unconventional productions has been gratifying. Fighting “the stigma that high school gives to Shakespeare,” when students are forced to plow through often dificult text, the director and cast work to convey the meaning behind each line.
“I've had people say that they may not understand every single word, because some of the language is archaic. But that's our job, to understand the words,” Johnson said. “People have told me, 'Even though I didn't understand some words, I understood the action and the meaning.' Which is great. That's exactly what we're going for. It's so good to hear that.
“We want to make Shakespeare accessible and exciting. Basically we want to make people understand why we love it so much.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.