All the World's a Stage

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

This summer, Southern California's outdoor theater season featured 11 different Shakespeare plays produced by eight different local companies. A pretty healthy selection; but currently the Royal Shakespeare Company is staging every single play the Bard wrote. That's 38 plays over the next 8 months. It's called the Complete Works Festival and its taking place in the city of Shakespeare's birth, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Last week, I traveled to England and took in six of the 38 productions. Five were RSC stagings and the sixth was a visiting company: Sir Peter Hall's troupe from Bath. Hall's production of Measure for Measure was basically the same version that he staged here in Los Angeles eight years ago at the Ahmanson Theater. That was part of an experiment to do Shakespeare in repertory at the Music Center which sadly didn't extend beyond the two productions that season.

More than anything else, the strength of the Royal Shakespeare Company stagings lay in the fact that they were peformed in repertory. Most of the actors in each play could be seen again in other roles in different plays. One night's fiery Octavius from Antony and Cleopatra would become a droll and entirely different Sebastian in The Tempest the next night. Even established stars like Patrick Stewart did double duty, performing Antony with a wonderful blonde toupee and Prospero with his famous bald pate.

These productions also succeeded thanks to the directors. Gregory Doran's Antony and Cleopatra was a triumph of minimal staging whereas Rupert Goold's The Tempest was a brilliant example of updating the Bard. Goold set The Tempest in the 1930's. Instead of having the Duke of Milan's boat crash into a Mediterranean island, he made the ship an ocean liner which goes down in the North Atlantic. This witty, arctic interpretation allowed for some wonderful visual effects, but these touches never got in the way of the fine performances. (The production is such a hit, its moving to London's West End--for anyone traveling to the UK this winter, it's a must see.)

Not every staging in the Complete Works Festival was a success though. Their production of Romeo and Juliet, despite some tap dancing and stick fighting, failed to get the audience's blood racing; and their Julius Caesar showed lots of blood shed, but little else. The surprise treat was King John, one of the least performed of Shakespeare's history plays. The medieval King was performed slyly by Richard McCabe as a mix of Tony Blair and The Office's David Brent, which made this early tale of indecisive leadership shine in a new light.

While many of England's theaters devote themselves to plays from Shakespeare's time, many, if not more, are seeking to redefine what theater means in the 21st century. One such company, that goes by the odd name, Stan's Cafe, is here in Los Angeles this week as part of the British troupe's first U.S. tour.

The newest "theater piece" by Stan's Cafe is titled Of All the People in All the World. In it, five actors will measure and remeasure 11,000 pounds of rice, which they say represents the weight of 300 million individual grains of rice--one grain for every person the United States. In addition to forming piles of rice symbolizing various statistics about human life, the actors--dressed in factory uniforms--will tell stories and interact with the audience. This kind of "Installation Theater" may sound like a far cry from Shakespeare, but in fact Stan's Caff is based in Birmingham, which is only a 45 minute train ride from Stratford-upon-Avon. Four hundred years after the Bard's innovations changed the stage forever; the middle of England continues to be a center of interesting theater.

Of All the People in All the World can been seen through Sunday at L.A.'s Skirball Cultural Center; the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival continues in England through April 2007.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.