Shakespeare fever burns bright

It's a case of much ado about the Bard, as products proliferate in the rush to fuel a growing frenzy.

May 30, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Give Shakespeare an Oscar, and the fallout ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. Only two months have passed since "Shakespeare in Love" won the Academy Award, but oh, the things that have landed on the theater critic's desk in that short time. First came news of Rhino Records' CD boxed set of spoken Shakespearean excerpts -- "Be Thou Now Persuaded: Living in a Shakespearean World." Then a postcard arrived announcing the latest movie -- director Michael Hoffman's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," starring Kevin Kline, Calista Flockhart and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Both of those probably belong in the sublime category. But what can be said of the two latest volumes of Shakespeareana? IDG Books has just released "Shakespeare for Dummies," and, not to be outdone, Alpha Books has come out with "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare."

While it may seem that there's a sudden renaissance of interest in the Renaissance writer, most of these projects were in the works before, or at least simultaneously with, the Gwyneth Paltrow-Joseph Fiennes pseudo-bio pic.

" 'Shakespeare in Love' is more, in a way, a culmination of interest than the source of it," says Brenda Johnson-Grau, co-producer of "Be Thou Now Persuaded," which is due out in July. "Our package feeds into that."

Johnson-Grau traces the renewed interest in Shakespeare back to Kenneth Branagh's 1989 "Henry V," which she feels not only led the way to the actor/director's subsequent Shakespeare movies -- "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet" -- but also to Baz Luhrmann's punk, updated 1996 "Romeo & Juliet," starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Similarly, "Midsummer" director Hoffman says of the 1999 Oscar winner, "Our shoots overlapped. ... We never talked about 'Shakespeare in Love,' we talked about 'Much Ado.' "

Hollywood's Will

Movies of Shakespeare's plays come out every year, although 1999 will see a bumper crop, with as many as 10 scheduled to be made or released, according to the Internet Movie Database.

"He's Hollywood's top playwright," says John Doyle, a British stage director who co-wrote "Shakespeare for Dummies" with Ray Lischner, a faculty member at Oregon State University. If the Bard were alive today, Doyle speculates, "He'd be a screenwriter and ever so wealthy."

The new and anticipated Shakespeare films range from relatively loyal adaptations, such as "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; "Love's Labour's Lost" (Branagh's newest, with music by songwriters such as Cole Porter and Irving Berlin); and Julie Taymor's version of "Titus Andronicus" (starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange); to much looser updates, such as the recently released "10 Things I Hate About You" (a modern-day remake of "The Taming of the Shrew") and "O" (a version of "Othello" that centers on a school basketball court).

If there's one word that comes up repeatedly at either end of the Shakespeare spectrum, it's "accessibility." "['A Midsummer Night's Dream'] is a play that seems to have a kind of fundamental accessibility," says Hoffman, who has acted in three stage productions, beginning with one in his college days that led to the founding of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, on whose board he still serves.

It's a play he believes in because "of its ability to reach an audience and entertain an audience and transport an audience and not just an audience that knows Shakespeare well."

Even so, Hoffman moved the play's setting from ancient Greece to the lush Tuscany countryside at the end of the 19th century, a time period he felt suited the theme of conditioned behavior -- such as that in the Victorian era -- giving way in the face of art and magic.

He also gave emphasis to the character of Bottom (Kline), the weaver, by placing him at the beginning and end of the film.

"I wanted to give it a center, some kind of emotional center, organize it around a character," he says of the fanciful comedy, which splits its focus among three disparate groups of characters -- the aristocracy, the fairy kingdom and a motley bunch of workmen.

"Accessibility" is also the chief aim of "Be Thou Now Persuaded," whose six CDs include speeches recited by such actors as John Barrymore, Paul Robeson and Orson Welles, as well as one complete play -- a recording of "Romeo and Juliet" by Albert Finney and Claire Bloom.

"The whole idea is accessibility -- to convince people that Shakespeare is not dull or hard to understand," says co-producer Johnson-Grau. "Basically we wanted to put together an overview of Shakespeare's poetry that would introduce the richness and the diversity of emotions and ideas and characters to people who maybe had only seen Leonardo diCaprio as Romeo."

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