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Is Shakespeare Relevant? That Is the Question . . .

Culture: The playwright's works and characters will undergo analysis by an eclectic lineup of panelists.


It seems fitting that the Shakespeare Globe Centre would hold the last of six biannual conferences at Los Angeles Central Library. Certainly there are a few copies of the plays on the premises in case anyone forgets theirs. And the library, like the Old Globe in London, has recently pulled a phoenix, rising from its literal ashes just as that famous theater was raised last year from its own historic dust.

Both sit with magisterial aplomb in their respective city centers, and both offer disparate and discreet art and beauty to the masses. If Shakespeare were alive and Angeleno, he might eschew the hilltop venues of the Music Center, preferring to roll around with the real folk downtown.

Which is precisely why the conference, titled "Shakespeare, Passion, and the Body Politic," will bring a bevy of readings, lectures, panel discussions and music to the library's Mark Taper Auditorium today through Sunday, as well as an exhibition of the portrait photography of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders in the lobby of the nearby Los Angeles Theatre Center.

"We began these conferences in America in an effort to not only raise money for the resurrection of the Globe, but to raise Shakespeare consciousness," says Louis Fantasia, Western region education director for the Globe. "We chose the library rather than a campus because we wanted it to be publicly accessible. That's also why we mixed up the panels. We wanted an unscholarly, not an uninformed, discussion."

Professional firebrand Camille Paglia will make the keynote speech, and the rest of the participants are a list of unusual suspects including novelist John Rechy, photographer Greenfield-Sanders, writer Sandra Tsing Loh, critic-director Charles Marowitz, psychologist Barbara Cadow as well as an assortment of others from academia. Their subject is the exploration of the conflict between our private selves--creatures of desire and need--and our public responsibilities, as typified particularly by the plays "King Lear" and "Antony and Cleopatra." Antony was the world leader who lost it all because of an "inappropriate" adulterous relationship.

"I had no idea 18 months ago when we were planning this, that we'd be right in the thick of the thing [the Clinton scandal]," says Fantasia, who will direct a stage reading of "Antony and Cleopatra" Saturday evening. "We must ask, does Antony's--the Victorians called it 'luxuriousness'--affect his leadership ability? He would say no."

But the bigger question the conference will grapple with is if Shakespeare, and to a larger extent tragedy itself, has relevance in today's self-help, resolution-oriented society. Would today's audience simply refer Cleopatra to "Women Who Love Too Much" or insist that King Lear and his daughters seek family counseling? Has the very private need for public display of passion, be it love or anger or joy, become a problem to be solved rather than a human drama to be celebrated?

"We all have a need to express things publicly," Fantasia says, "which may be the reason for road rage and graffiti. Are we being reduced to public opinion polls? Is Shakespeare reduced to a relic, lumped with art and culture? I think that despite our virtual world, there are universal truths here that simply need to be refreshed."

* "Shakespeare, Passion, and the Body Politic" kicks off today with a gallery reception at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, at 5:30 p.m., followed by the keynote speech in the Mark Taper Auditorium at the L.A. Central Library, 630 W. 5th St., at 8 p.m. Admission to the speech is $7 and to the conference, $10. Reduced rate parking is available at the Central Library, and a shuttle will be available between the library and Los Angeles Theatre Center from 5 to 7:30 p.m. today. Information and reservations: (310) 289-2140.

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