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Audience Interplay's the Thing at New Globe

Theater: More than 350 years after the original closed, a modern-day version of the 'wooden O' is encouraging a lively approach to Shakespeare.


LONDON — When three American teenagers in jeans showed up to see "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the new Globe Theater here, an usher sketched surprising ground rules, saying, "Please be as loud and as rude as you like."

Shakespeare as you've never seen it has come home after 350 years, complete with rowdy "groundlings" standing before the chest-high stage in a faithful outdoor replica of Old Will's original "wooden O" theater.

The launch of the new theater is a belated tribute to the late American actor-director Sam Wanamaker, who stubbornly battled 25 years to bring Shakespeare back to the south bank of the Thames before his death in 1993.

Play it again, Sam. The Globe works. In the vision of Globe artistic director Mark Rylance, the Globe is interactive theater. Some of it is planned, some is incidental.

For $7.50, up to 500 "groundlings" get the right to stand "in the yard" before the stage, and, if they like, to behave as playgoers often did in Shakespeare's day. Rylance encourages them to mill about, to eat and drink (BYO). Hisses, boos, catcalls and bawdy remarks are all welcome.

Rain, though, is no fun for groundlings. Umbrellas are banned because they block the view; rain jackets with hoods are de rigueur, this being the same leaky London it was in the Bard's day.

The seated audience, in three tiers of seats in a U around the stage, is meant to be just as noisy; it hisses and groans when Rylance as the love-struck villain Proteus betrays his friend Valentine by trying to run off with the fair Silvia.

Not everybody is pleased with the happy ending when Proteus' girlfriend Julia forgives all. "Don't take him back!" shouted a woman seated above the teenagers.

There are almost 1,000 seats in the new theater, (priced $18 to $24 for this "Prologue Season" ending Sept. 15) and every one of them is hard. They are oak benches without backs, replicas of the ones in the old Globe, like the theater's evocative thatched roof. Maybe Elizabethan audiences were tougher: The seats are made for fidgeting. But current Globe playgoers get a modern-day break: optional cushions at $1.50.

"The Globe is to be used . . . to rediscover something of the original interpretation of the plays. This reconstruction is the first opportunity to explore the physical setting and what that contributes to the plays," Rylance said on a nervous opening night.

Some of those contributions, however, would surprise Will. The theater on the south bank of the Thames is a few hundred yards from the site of the original. If the wind is wrong, the theater crouches in the flight path of planes landing at Heathrow Airport. Buzzing helicopters, which follow the river over central London for safety reasons, are even more vexing.

Still, the sporadic distractions from the sky only added to the spectacle one recent afternoon as 12 actors and one ugly black dog cavorted across the stage in an almost vaudeville performance of a romantic comedy that was one of the Bard's earliest and least consequential plays.

"I didn't know that Shakespeare could be fun like this," said a 15-year-old American who had been to more serious Shakespearean plays carefully staged in mainline theaters.

By contrast, the Globe is much more rustic. "The performance was commensurate with the setting--a bit raw, like the wood. But both will mature, and so will the Shakespeare," American visitor Judith Kreingler said.

As Shakespeare took for granted and Wanamaker intended, the play is staged in natural light with modest props, no microphones, no curtain. Even so, there was one technical intricacy too many: Actor George Innes, one of the principals, broke his leg coming down a rope from the balcony during dress rehearsal.

Elizabethans often acted in their everyday clothes, and for the Globe opening Milwaukee-reared Rylance and director Jack Shepherd had their actors dress similarly: funky Italian suits, short skirts and heels, Panama hats, sneakers, wraparound sunglasses and, in one scene, bathing suits--all of it with one eye cocked at the audience, inviting a response.

"I have a hunch that the Globe Theater could become a real--and revelatory--success," said critic Charles Spencer, who found in the rapport between Globe actors and audience "a spontaneity I have never seen equaled in a Shakespeare production."

Rylance's calculated contrast between place, play and costume left some critics livid. "It beggared belief. It outraged sense," wrote Nicholas de Jongh. "Surely the Globe's guiding purpose is to explore and imaginatively re-create the Elizabethan stage-picture, not to stress the gulf between 16th and 20th centuries?"

Another critic, Sheridan Morley, came out swinging. He reviled the play as an insult to Wanamaker's memory, "under-cast, aimless and often even embarrassing in its amazing amateurishness."

For the prologue season, the configuration of the stage is temporary. Later, actors, academics and architects will try to agree on what the permanent stage should be like. Just where to place awkward twin pillars on either side of the stage, for example. They must decide on the basis of their own experience at the Globe so far: There are no plans from Shakespeare's theater, which burned down on June 29, 1613, and was immediately rebuilt but closed for good in 1642.

In October, work begins on the permanent stage for next year's full first season opening in June. Even without one, the Wanamaker-Shakespeare Globe already looks like a bold if controversial new planet in the heavens of British theater. "Up in heaven, Wanamaker and Shakespeare would have smiled, probably in that order," said first night reviewer Nigel Reynolds.

Montalbano, The Times' London bureau chief, is currently on assignment in Turkey.

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