British actor Paul Alexander opens his intensely dramatic one-man Shakespearean show, "Dreams of Power and Passion," the Theatre Project with an enactment of the ominous chorus from "Henry V," which tells of the terrifying consequences of going to war.
"Suppose within the girdle of these walls
are now confined two mighty monarchies,
whose high upreared and abutting fronts
the perilous narrow ocean parts asunder,"
he declares on stage in resounding, resonant tones.
"It is chillingly timely," says Alexander during an after-performance discussion in the theater's art gallery. "Two great armies about to go to war." He shivers slightly at the parallel between ''Henry V'' and the looming war in the Persian Gulf.
"In the play it is described what it is like during a raging war . . . innocents slaughtered . . . mothers losing sons. What we are facing Shakespeare already told us 400 years ago."
Dressed in his black Edwardian costume, Alexander cuts a figure that can be both menacing and comical in performance.
The actor's two-hour production (which premiered at the 1990 Knoxville World Festival in Tennessee) offers six of Shakespeare's most troubled characters, whose unholy and fantastical desires for great power caused their ultimate demise.
A chain of monologues follows in a series of scenes that includes such major characters as Mark Antony, Malvolio ("Twelfth Night"), King Lear, Bottom ("A Midsummer Night's Dream"), Macbeth and Prospero ("The Tempest").
"The men I portray are all megalomaniacs, even the amusing ones," says Alexander. "Shakespeare is saying if dreams of passion and power are turned into reality there can only be disaster. You have to give it up as Prospero observes at the end. 'The rare quality is virtue rather than vengeance'," the actor quotes.
Alexander says his point in staging these scenes is to make Shakespeare believable to an audience not familiar with his works. "Shakespeare was a wizard of imagination," he says. "His plays reflect life itself. On stage I use my own explanations to help lead people in. I try to provide them with a new way of looking at the Bard.
"I want to break the barriers between the audience and the actor," he adds, "to help the audience realize we are all in this experience together."
The classically trained artist has worked with the RoyaShakespeare Company, the Oxford Playhouse, the Welsh National Theatre and the Birmingham Repertory. Alexander also has performed in more than 60 productions for British radio and television.
He has spent the past eight years touring England, Europe, Israel, Canada and America. Alexander was last seen in Baltimore in 1988 performing in his other one-man production, "St. John's Gospel," based on the King James Version of the Bible. "The message in that piece was to love one another," says Alexander, a man who has taken time to discover his own spirituality.
The performer considers King Lear the greatest tragic character in all literature. "An impossible part to play," he says. "The ancient king made a terrible mistake when he put himself in the hands of the gods. That was asking for retribution."
Of Macbeth he says, "It took me ages to grapple with this dark soul. I didn't want to handle him. You have to sink yourself in depth of feeling of the character. I didn't want to be depressed," he laughs.
"When Macbeth realizes his mind is gone, 'full of scorpions,' that must be terrible torment. I know what that experience is like," he says, "to be so totally alone. Time drags and you understand infinity."
Of Prospero, Alexander has concluded he was not a benign wizard but a fiendish dictator. "Even if he had cause for retribution -- his brothers dethroned him -- the music he created to hurt his enemies was the worst kind of torture.
"I am trying to show him as a man who has finally caught himself in the mirror and asks who is that awful person? Is that me?"
Of going about learning the overwhelming lines the piece requires, Alexander says anyone can do it. "It's like digging a ditch with a spade, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year," he explains. "The more you learn, the easier it gets. We all have a limitless memory bank, you know."
Apart from his legitimate stage appearances, the actor has another dream in mind. In this dream he envisions himself as a stand-up comic zapping the Bard's multitude of characters in a wild display of zany satire.
"I want to make people laugh," he confides.
Alexander's next stop will be London, where he lives with his American wife, Robin Hart, and year-old son. There he will work on his comedy act and perform "Dreams of Passion" for his
English peers. "Their reaction will decide whether I go on with the Shakespearean piece or not," he says.
"Shakespeare: Dreams of Power and Passion" continues at the Theatre Project through Sunday. Show times are 8 p.m. weekdays and 3 p.m. Sunday. For ticket information, call the box office at 752-8558.