Bard times

“To be or not to be? That is the question.”

In fact, that is the question — from Shakespeare’s Hamlet — that remains more famous than any other line in literature.

And, according to North Carolina Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Lou Rackoff, that legendary question grows even more significant in a new millennium.

“[Hamlet] seems like … a popular millennium choice,” he says. “I think that’s because the turning of a century is when people, when society, tend[s] to re-evaluate [itself]. It’s a marker on the road of life. I know a lot of people and organizations and governments have used [the millennium] to evaluate where they’re going — and those are some of the themes that are in this play. I think that may be a very strong reason why a lot of Shakespeare festivals have chosen to do it.”

Rackoff’s group is definitely among them.

“It was one of the things that made the play appeal to me,” he explains. “It seems relevant, and one of the questions that’s asked [in the play] is, when you’re challenged — by responsibility, by your position in life, by the expectations for you, by sudden events that you’ve no control over — can you stand up to that challenge?”

To make its version of the classic tragedy even more applicable to our era, the N.C. Shakespeare Festival adapted its production to a modern setting, giving it greater immediacy and drawing out the play’s more overt pertinent themes. According to Rackoff, doing a contemporary Hamlet was a “collaborative decision between the director, Imre Goldstein, and the design team, in consultation with some of the actors and also in consultation with me.”

Giving the lion’s share of the credit to Goldstein, though, he adds, “I knew, going in, that Imre was interested in a contemporary version of the show, and that appealed to me.”

Staging a timely Hamlet required more than exterior changes, however.

“I would say [it’s] a very personal and passionate version of Hamlet, as opposed to some versions I’ve seen that have been focused on the spectacle,” he continues.

Leading this more-intimate production is young actor David Furr, an evocative Hamlet who Rackoff feels “has a lot of appeal for young audiences. … He’s very passionate, and I think it’s a unique portrayal of this character.”

In addition to the utterly serious, self-evaluating dramatics of Hamlet, the company also brings us Rackoff’s production of The Taming of the Shrew — another unconventional (though more lighthearted) approach to the Bard.

“I see it as a love story,” Rackoff declares, “and I think it’s a love story between two very feisty individuals who are very independent-minded. Kate, in my mind, was not born a shrew, but was made into a shrew by the society she lives in — her father, [who] is very narrow-minded; a spoiled brat of a younger sister; [and] a township that denigrates her desire to be a strong-minded individual.”

The more common approach to the play is one that can only be called aggressively misogynistic.

“I just saw a production in England earlier this year that was really basically about a man subjugating a woman,” Rackoff notes. “I have never seen the play that way, and I think if you read it carefully, it is really a love story in which two people grow to love each other and come to a mutual respect by the end of the play, realiz[ing] that if you deeply love somebody and if that love is reciprocated, then you’re willing to do anything for that person.”

Rackoff’s The Taming of the Shrew is also updated — but only to 1908.

“I looked at that situation, and I thought … if I put that into the early 20th century — a period where women were breaking away from older conventions that were constraining and no longer seemed appropriate — [then] maybe Kate could be a very contemporary individual.”

The change of period turns the question of Kate’s “shrewishness” into a more complex one, making the character less an aberration and more a personification of the first rumblings of modern women’s dissatisfaction with their place in the world.

Thankfully, Rackoff has not lost sight of the show’s primary goal: to succeed as a comedy.

“Our production focuses on the comedy — because it’s a brilliant comedy,” he maintains. “But it also tries to weave in the growing maturity of love that Kate and Petruchio find themselves in. I think from that point of view, it’s a really nice counterpoint in the show. It’s not only funny — I hope hilarious — but also touching, and a little moving at the end, so it’s got a number of layers that have really interested audiences again here in our home theater.”

While resisting the tempting label of “Radical Shakespeare” to define his brave new productions, Rackoff admits to the necessity of some minor — even playful — alterations to achieve his goal:

“For example, instead of Petruchio arriving by horseback to the wedding, he arrives on a motorhorse, an early motorcycle, and things like that. But those are [the] easy adjustments.”

The play’s the thing

The North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, based in High Point, brings Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew to the Diana Wortham Theatre Oct. 20 and 21. Hamlet shows Friday at 8 p.m.; The Taming of the Shrew shows Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $22/general admission, $20/seniors and students, $10/children. Pre-and post-performance discussions — conducted by Warren Wilson College’s Dr. David Bradshaw and Artistic Director Lou Rackoff — will attend each performance. A reception immediately following the evening performance of The Taming of the Shrew will be held in the Colburn Gem & Mineral Museum. The reception is $10 per person, free to members of the Diana Wortham Theatre Friends Association.

Call 257-4530 for tickets and info.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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