A good Bard is hard to find

In the age of reality television, getting large audiences to accept poetic language and thoughtful, humanistic plots would seem to be an uphill battle.

But Lou Rackoff, the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director since 1988, has seen the traveling company swell in both dollars and attendance under his stewardship. Alas, the troupe’s upcoming local stop will be Rackoff’s swan song; he’ll take his last bow after the Saturday performances of Much Ado About Nothing.

But he leaves an organization with a $1.2 million budget and 50,000 satisfied North Carolinians last season.

Ado, written about 1598, hails from the period when Shakespeare might truly have been in love. We know spectacularly few facts about the playwright himself; even his work comes to us filtered through a series of typesetters, actors and rememberers — plus legions of scholars who’ve passed their lives in happy speculation about the Bard.

Part of a series of romantic comedies in which love triumphs without much effort, Ado comes about a year before Hamlet, when Shakespeare’s world turned dark and the morally troubled “problem plays” and great tragedies began to flow from his goose-quill pen.

The artistic director has set the production in the Impressionist-flavored 1870s to emphasize “nature, romance and a European quality” he wanted the production to have.

“The comedy,” Rackoff observes, “comes from real romantic stakes.”

But the play’s most interesting couple isn’t the young lovers of the main plot, but Beatrice and Benedick, two older, smarter and rather cynical observers who get swept up in the love fever and prove themselves as silly and as human as those they would mock. Rackoff cast the Atlanta husband-and-wife team of Mark and Tess Kincaid as Beatrice and Benedick to add that frisson of familiarity to the romantic tension.

The Shakespeare company’s other offering, Macbeth (1606), directed by Imre Goldstein of Tel Aviv, will be presented opening night.

Goldstein finds a modern relevance in, as he puts it, “a good man succumbing to the evil that is present in all of us.” He notes that Macbeth grows more eloquent as he warms to his new, morals-free role. (Perhaps this can be taken as an allegory for the take-no-prisoners approach of upper management in fin-de-siecle corporate America.)

It’s always interesting to see how artists from other countries, especially non-English-speaking ones, handle material familiar to American audiences. Goldstein calls the Gunpowder Plot, which closely preceded and perhaps informed some of the action in Macbeth, a “terrorist” act. If Guy Fawkes had succeeded in blowing up the king and the House of Lords in one stroke, it would have had gargantuan impact, perhaps similar or greater to that of our own 9/11.

From his director’s notes, it doesn’t appear that Goldstein attempts a radical restructuring of the play to fit this thesis, but he does make the point. That, coupled with the world he’s coming from (Israel), could spark some chilling parallels in the context of current events.

The North Carolina Shakespeare Festival has been staging plays in Asheville for 20 years, performing first at Warren Wilson College and UNCA, then, since its completion, at the Diana Wortham Theatre, as part of that venue’s Mainstage Theater Series.

Rackoff says Diana Wortham is an ideal house for a play like Ado: “It feels intimate; the actors feel like they can reach out and engage the audience. The acoustics allow a subtlety that is so important in a word play like [this].”

And that intimacy dovetails neatly with the artistic director’s long-range vision. “My goal,” he says, “has been to create an accessible and artful live experience, where the audience feels it is almost a participant.”

The play’s the thing

The North Carolina Shakespeare Festival presents Macbeth at Diana Wortham Theatre on Friday, Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. Much Ado About Nothing shows on Saturday, Oct. 12 at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets cost $27/general, $25 seniors/students, $10/children 12 and under. Free discussions, happening one hour before each performance, will take place in the Forum at Pack Place. For ticket reservations and more information, call 257-4530 or visit www.dwtheatre.com.

Coinciding with the Shakespeare troupe’s visit, Diana Wortham Theatre will, on 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, host “Shakespeare in the Mountains,” a series of events including a high school monologue competition, a stage-combat exhibition/lecture, a demonstration of Elizabethan dance and a workshop on how to audition for Shakespeare productions. Call Rae Geoffrey at 257-4544, ext. 307, to register and for more information. “Shakespeare in the Mountains” events are free.

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