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On Center: Quintessential Shakespeare

by on June 21, 2012 11:18 AM

Actors From The London Stage performs The Merchant of Venice in October

By John Mark Rafacz

   The desire to belong is a powerful force. It motivates us to seek love and fortune, oppose injustice, and yearn for happiness.

   The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare’s provocative comedy about Bassanio’s quest for Portia, explores the lengths to which we’re willing to go to fit in. Actors From The London Stage, the renowned British company founded by stage and screen star Patrick Stewart, performs The Merchant of Venice October 10 and 11 at Penn State’s Schwab Auditorium.

   By using minimal sets and costumes, five actors ask audiences to imaginatively engage in the performance — just as Shakespeare intended. Each of the actors takes on two or three major roles and several minor ones.

   Brigid Zengeni, who played Lady Macbeth in the Actors From The London Stage tour that came to Penn State in fall 2007, says portraying a number of parts and changing from one to the next in an instant is about understanding the psychology of each character.

   “You plot each character’s journey throughout the play, which is done in rehearsal and done in your own time,” she says. “As soon as you’re confident in each character, then getting up very quickly and changing — actually it’s quite good fun. It doesn’t give you time to think. It means you’re working on instinct.”

   The performers in Actors From The London Stage productions don’t have a director. Having five actors working without outside guidance requires even more collaboration than usual.

   “It really is just trusting the text, which is kind of easy because it’s Shakespeare, and you can’t not trust that,” Zengeni insists. “But more so, [it’s] trusting the individual choices, the character choices, that you make as an actor when you don’t have a director to say, ‘No, that doesn’t work.’ ”

   Actors From The London Stage players come from prestigious companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The company is based in England and prepares for its productions there. Tours are booked through the University of Notre Dame.

   Each tour takes the performers to about 10 universities. In addition to performing a show at each institution, the actors spend a week participating in educational activities. The actors bring their knowledge to an array of courses in literature, theater, communications, and more.

   “We’re not professors, we’re not academics — we’re actors,” Zengeni says. “So where a lot of students will be looking at the text, and they’ll be reading it, and deconstructing it, and analyzing it from an academic point of view, we come in [and] we say, ‘Put the books down, get up, and let’s see what it feels like. Let’s try acting it.’ We approach it from a very different point of view — a much more practical way.”

   The company wants students to learn how Shakespeare’s stories become scripts, words become actions, and actions become meaning.

   “Ultimately, it’s about the performance, and I think that’s what we bring to the classes,” Zengeni says. “I think we try to make it fun, as well, because Shakespeare is very much about the human condition. That’s why it’s timeless, and that’s why we’re still performing him today because the human condition just doesn’t change, does it?”

Tickets for The Merchant of Venice and other Center for the Performing Arts 2012-13 presentations are on sale. Visit or phone (814) 863-0255.

About the author:

John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager of the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.

John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager of the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.
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