In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Shannon Nettesheim (left), David Flores and Melissa Keith appear in the Boulevard Theatre's production of "All's Well That Ends Well"

Shrinking Shakespeare for small Milwaukee stages

Storefront Shakespeare. Those two words are seldom in the same sentence.

We tend to believe that size matters when it comes to staging the Shakespearean canon of plays. Big casts. Big performances. Big budget for costumes. And theater companies hope big audiences.

Two Milwaukee stage troupes are testing that assumption in the next few weeks. The Boulevard Theatre will produce "All's Well That Ends Well" in its Bay View storefront Feb. 10 to March 14, and Off the Wall Theatre will mount "Macbeth" in its intimate Downtown venue Feb. 18 to March 7.

Boulevard normally seats 50 persons in its space, but it will reduce that number by 10. Off the Wall usually accommodates from 50 to 70 patrons, depending on the physical size of the production, but it will shrink its audience to only 20 persons for each performance of "Macbeth." With 17 actors in the cast, there will be nearly one performer for each member of the audience.

Both shows will mix actors with the audience. The seat next to you could be sometimes occupied by one of the characters.

Boulevard is presenting "All's Well" in the round. "Macbeth" will be everywhere in the Off the Wall room.

Scrapping the traditional proscenium or thrust stage for a 360-degree experience has advantages, according to Off the Wall founder and artistic director Dale Gutzman. "We can be more cinematic. Heads turn to corners of the room rather than staying focused straight ahead on a stage."

"You don't have to play Shakespeare with a capital S," is Mark Bucher's explanation of the different style an intimate venue allows. Bucher is the Boulevard's founder and artistic director.

Both the Boulevard and Off the Wall have previously done Shakespeare in their small spaces. Gutzman is enthusiastic about the opportunities offered by the unconventional venues.

"It allows you to be simple and honest and explore the psychology of characters rather than have to project and do it grandly," he said last week while sitting in Off the Wall's pint-sized lobby. Gutzman traces the popularity of scaled-down Shakespeare to a celebrated Royal Shakespeare Company staging of "Macbeth" in the 1970s. Judi Dench and Ian McKellen starred in the London production, which was directed by a young Trevor Nunn.

"The function of Shakespeare has changed," Gutzman said. "When he wrote his plays, acting was different. Everything about the theater was different. They weren't delving into psychology the way we do.

"Back then, they were not able to concentrate on the words and the ideas the way we can now."

The stylistic changes in acting and presentation have further established Shakespeare's greatness, according to Gutzman. "As we do these plays differently, we keep discovering new things about them," he explained.

Gutzman and Bucher believe that mounting Shakespeare in small spaces can improve the acting. Performers don't fall into the common trap of declaiming rather than speaking. There is no need for oversized voice projection.

"You would be amazed at the differences in the meaning of lines when you can speak in your normal voice," Gutzman said.

What is the downside to producing Shakespeare's large cast plays in small spaces? "Getting your actors on and off stage is sometimes your biggest problem," he added.

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