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Once More Unto the Bard: The Royal Shakespeare Company Takes New York

“It’s a huge venture,” said Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) producer Jeremy Adams, while standing on the company’s new 1,000-seat main stage theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in late May, and contemplating the fact that the troupe is about to embark on a mammoth undertaking: transporting seven productions and a frame-by-frame replica of the theatre, to the Park Avenue Armory.

The occasion is the company’s 50th anniversary, and it is celebrating by coming to New York for a six-week residency as part of the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival. "As You Like It," which opens on Wednesday, will be the company's first show in the armory.

“There’s a little bit of the evangelical about bringing the space,” said the company's artistic director Michael Boyd, and indeed, the season is designed to deliver a message of sorts. Although the RSC launched the careers of such stars as Judi Dench, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, the playing of Shakespeare, Boyd believes, is about community, not celebrity.

As a result, actors working with the RSC are asked to commit to three-year performance cycles — New York will be seeing the conclusion of one of these — in which they will appearing in multiple works.

“It’s anti-zeitgeist,” Boyd commented wryly. “We live in the age of portfolio careers in the theater no less than anywhere else, and the idea of a permanent or long-term commitment is anathema to a lot of artists, and certainly to their agents.”

Nevertheless, those who do commit seem to thrive, and find the experience transformative. Richard Katz plays Touchstone in "As You Like It," and Lord Capulet in "Romeo and Juliet," among other roles.

“Well, the thing about an ensemble, there are really, really brilliant things and also really difficult things," he said. "And the brilliant things tend to be the reason you want to be an actor. You’ve got fellowship and friendship and people looking out for you, and you know what they can do, and they know what you can do, and you can enjoy surprising them and delighting them with new ideas.”

New Yorkers will be able to see 42 protean actors in five main stage plays: "As You Like It," directed by Michael Boyd; "Julius Caesar," directed by Lucy Bailey; "King Lear," directed by David Farr; "Romeo and Juliet," directed by Rupert Goold; and "The Winter’s Tale," also directed by Farr. There are also two programs that are part of the RSC’s children’s education program, Stand Up for Shakespeare — shortened, but not diluted, versions of "Hamlet" (directed by Brother/Sister Plays author Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is the RSC’s writer in residence) and "The Comedy of Errors."

Working in repertory allows the actors to make unexpected connections. Katy Stephens plays the poised and radiant Rosalind in "As You Like It," and she is also the implacable, murderous Regan in "King Lear."

“Playing Regan, she’s a very dark lady, and I think sometimes, you know, we have to accept that people are evil and there is no rhyme nor reason," she said. "But what was really interesting is when we started to play in really quite intense rep — and I did a matinee of "King Lear," and then we did "As You Like It" in the evening, it was coming out of the darkness of Regan that taught me about the light of Rosalind.”

New York theatre-goers will also be able to experience these plays “up close and personal.” The Scarlet and Grey Theatre (named in honor of Ohio State University, which has helped to fund the residency) is a thrust stage, extending right into the audience on three sides. 

“It’s a completely different relationship,” said Jonjo O’Neill, who plays Orlando in "As You Like It." “The audience are much more present as a character.”

Boyd continued, waxing philosophical: “Theatre happens in the space between me, the other actor, and the audience … We hope to bring to audiences the delight of discovering each other.”

This is very much how Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have received his works, so although the five productions are set everywhere from ancient Rome to the 1950s, the experience will have a thrilling authenticity.  

And thrilling is certainly the word for the reconstituted theatre, which rises like a great scarlet windsock in the middle of the Armory’s 55,000 square feet. At the moment, it is indubitably itself, but starting on Wednesday, it will become the Forest of Arden, as the players role out the first of their productions.

Well over 100 people were involved in creating the Royal Shakespeare Company’s residency — producers, directors, wig makers, technicians, stage managers, and Michael Boyd, leading the charge to the armory.

“Well, you know, they’re all battles, aren’t they?" mused Richard Katz. "You know, dramas are about battles won or lost."

This one, it seems clear, the actors are destined to win.