Matthew Reddin

Theater RED dares to take on Shakespeare, unrehearsed

The new company, helmed by Christopher and Marcee Elst, will perform a quasi-Elizabethan "Twelfth Night" Saturday.

By - Jan 3rd, 2013 01:09 pm
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Saturday night, Marcee Doherty-Elst will walk across a mostly bare stage with nothing but a scroll in her hand. She will deliver a line – she doesn’t know to whom – and then simply stand and listen for the cue that tells her she must speak again.

It’s certainly not your average production of Twelfth Night. At least not your average 21st century production. According to Doherty-Elst and husband Christopher Elst, producing the show as the debut performance of their new theater company Theater RED, it’s close to the way Shakespeare himself might have staged it.

That’s according to a method known as Unrehearsed Shakespeare, which puts actors in an approximation of the position Elizabethan actors would have faced before going on stage. There’s no rehearsals, full scripts or elaborate staging; a month before the show, actors get scrolls containing just their own lines and the preceding four-syllable cues, and thus have to rely entirely on verbal clues in the text itself to know what to do after they’re thrown on stage.

Of course, this doesn’t come naturally to modern actors, so this method relies on rules that help performers come close to the level of a veteran actor of Shakespeare’s era. “Unlike contemporary acting, where ‘good actors’ are judged subjectively, here people who follow the rules are good actors,” Elst said. “‘Fast equals good’ is one – just keep talking and hope that something sticks. You want a ‘rich gestural life,’ very specific gestures that make what you’re saying clear. And actors who engage the audience are good actors; there’s no fourth wall here.”

“And then there’s the number 1 rule,” Doherty-Elst cuts in. “ABC. Always be crossing.” It keeps the cast moving, she says – cross toward people you’re speaking to, or, if you don’t know who you’re speaking to, the person who spoke to you. Unless you’re deliberately using the formal “you” instead of the intimate “thee” to establish distance – then you cross away.

Jared McDaris, managing director of Unrehearsed Shakespeare Chicago and Theater RED’s production of “Twelfth Night,” performs Hamlet using the method’s iconic scroll. Photo courtesy Marcee Doherty-Elst.

It’s complicated, yes, but there’s a definite logic to it. And to help the Milwaukeeans in the cast exploring the method for the first time, Theater RED has an invaluable resource in the Unrehearsed Shakespeare Company of Chicago, a group of actors using the same method that Elst joined years ago, shortly after learning the method himself at a workshop during theater combat training. Five members, including managing director Jared McDavis (both acting and “directing”), will be coming to Milwaukee to perform roles in the show.

McDaris isn’t filling the role of the average director. Since there aren’t rehearsals, he instead holds one-on-one text sessions with each member of the cast, going through the scroll line-by-line to point out the meaning of the text, any subtext or historical context, and the bawdy jokes hidden in Shakespeare’s wordplay.

Elst, for the first time, will provide the production’s other supporting role: the prompter. He’ll spend the whole show with his eyes locked into a copy of Twelfth Night, ready to jump in at a moment’s notice if any actors miss their cues. In fact, he’s expected to do that literally if they’re lost for too long, stepping right on stage and taking over the role while they try and catch up.

“Unless you’ve been to Chicago or one of the few other ‘Unrehearsed’ companies in the country, you’ve never seen anything like this,” Doherty-Elst said. But she and Elst say the unorthodox (or maybe superorthodox) approach is a hit with audiences, who intuitively understand the overdramatic gestures and fast-paced archaic phrasing as well or better than in more contemporary stagings. Doherty-Elst offers personal proof: The first time she performed in an Unrehearsed show (“The Comedy of Errors,” in Wauwautosa last summer), she had her mother come to one of the shows. “My mom of course comes to all sorts of stuff I do, but she doesn’t necessarily ‘get’ things like Shakespeare. She got this.”

Post-Twelfth Night, Elst and Doherty-Elst have already laid out loose groundwork for what their new company, based in Wauwautosa, will look like. While “Unrehearsed” productions will be a regular staple, if Twelfth Night goes well, they also hope to stage two more “traditional” shows this year, possibly including A Thousand Times Goodnight, an adaptation of 1,001 Nights by McDaris written in the Shakespearean five-act style.

More broadly, they want Theater Red to be a platform to develop shows that haven’t yet fit into the “niches” of other local theaters, and offer an opportunity for actors to develop movement and combat skills they may not otherwise have an opportunity to.

“We feel like we can bring a flavor of theater that’s not being explored,” Elst said. “We want to bring things not being taught in Milwaukee, and here we have an opportunity to do that.”

Theater RED will perform Twelfth Night Saturday, Jan. 5 at 7 p.m. at Sunset Playhouse. Tickets are $10 at the door or $9 online.

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