It's late on a Wednesday morning in early November at the Ruth Page Theatre on North Dearborn, and members of a premier Chicago acting troupe have gathered here to, well, brush up their Shakespeare.
Actually, the operative verb here is not really brush. For the next hour, Kristine Thatcher and Scott Wentworth, the leads in "The Taming of the Shrew," will slap, slide, shove, wrestle, lunge, poke and even spit.
The performers are being shepherded through rehearsal (Act II, Scene 1) by Barbara Gaines, the ebullient, Jeff-winning founder and artistic director of Shakespeare Repertory, once characterized by Tribune critic Richard Christiansen as having gone "from a surprising phenemenon to a cherished staple of Chicago theater." It is also reputedly the only company in the country that performs Shakespeare, exclusively, on a year-round basis.One of the Bard's most physical plays, "Shrew" will open Wednesday night, continuing through Jan. 2, and at the moment the cast and director are casually dressed in a style that is less Elizabethan England and more "Northern Exposure." Scattered around the premises is the usual rehearsal-period detritus: discarded coffee cups, soda cans, orange juice cartons. On a table, next to a Kleenex box, a single candle burns.
"The candle, for me, is a symbol of hope, a spiritual kind of thing," Gaines is saying during a break. "It all goes back to 10 years ago when I wanted to start a Shakespeare company and the Chicago aristocracy said to me, `Tyrone Guthrie tried to do that in the '50s and he couldn't. Why in the world do you think you can?' We go through about three candles in one rehearsal period, and for some reason it's very comforting to me. It calms me down." Gaines laughs. "The Kleenex is significant, too."
At various times, the dimunitive director will move around the theater, waving her arms, hooting at the actors' combative improvisation, laughing appreciatively and lustily.
"Absolutely brilliant," she tells her actors. "Surprised I said that, aren't you?" Later: "We need a more pained Kate . . . more hurt . . . We have to see this outrageously brutal, wild woman, that barbaric quality. I just need Petruchio's fears to be well-founded. Kate, it could be as simple as pushing him over."
Thatcher's Kate proceeds to get Wentworth's Petruchio into a headlock, grabs hold of his ankle and tries to throw him to the floor as if both were in a Wyoming rodeo. "Put your foot on his belly-go get him," Gaines suggests as Wentworth playfully slides into Thatcher's feet. "Good. Good. Oh, wow. Yeah.
"Petruchio, I saw her eyes. She wanted to kill you when you grabbed her. But then there was a sudden change, to a fear of being touched . . . Now, Kate, here's where you spit. Spat. Is there a past tense of spit? . . . The brilliance of this, of course, is that Kate and Petruchio are passionately the same, and both of you as actors are able to tap into your passion. I haven't seen many at Stratford being able to do that . . . Bravo. Let's go back to that so we don't lose it. If it's good enough for Harpo and Chico, it's good enough for us."
"Barbara is totally and utterly focused," says Jane Nicholl Sahlins, executive director of Chicago's International Theatre Festival, no slouch itself in the Shakespeare department. "And dedicated. I mean, the word could have been invented for her. Her attention to detail is extraordinary. Her knowledge of the text and the way she imparts that to actors is extremely rare. She's a jewel, an enormous talent, and I think we're lucky to have her."
Segue to a Friday morning, and Gaines is sitting in a Rush Street restaurant. It is four days after Shakespeare Rep won the Joseph Jefferson Award for best production of a play ("King Lear"), in addition to three other Jeffs (Gaines sharing the directing award with the Goodman's Michael Maggio and Richard Kneeland, and Rita Pietraszek winning for best actor and best lighting design).
"I was really surprised we got it," Gaines is saying over a poached egg and bagel, hold the Diet Coke for a while. "In fact, I was so sure we wouldn't win, I didn't even prepare a speech. Anyway, it will really help us with fund-raising. When I look back and see that six years ago our budget was $3,000 and now it's well over $1 million, I realize we're sort of riding this wave because so many people want to see Shakespeare."
Still a young company, Shakespeare Repertory-which three years ago won four Jeffs, including best production, for "The Tale of Cymbeline"-launched its first season in 1987. Gaines remembers talking to her parents. "They said, almost in unison, `For God's sake, pick a play somebody has heard of.' So, of course, for our opener I chose `Troilus and Cressida.' I guess I get satisfaction doing plays that haven't been produced much. I just pick ones I really love. For instance, I don't know what I'd do if I had to direct `Hamlet' right now. I mean, he really frustrates me. To tell you the truth, I just feel like slapping him."
"The Taming of the Shrew" is the middle play this season, following "The Tale of Cymbeline" (once more into the breach) and preceding "Measure for Measure." "Shrew," of course, has been seen in feminist quarters as misogynist and sexist.
"I was almost accosted in the street by women who were very angry that I would do this play," says Gaines, between bites of bagel. "One director from Stratford said the only reason I could get away with doing this is because I'm a woman. But I don't think Shakespeare was capable of writing a sexist play. He was, of course, a humanist, which transcends feminism, racism or any ism.
"I've always thought that Kate was a wild, brutal woman because she was in such pain and had been ostracized for so long. All she knew how to do was lash out in pain at the world, and Petruchio is the first man who looks at her. She is, indeed, tamed, but in another sense, she's given a chance to re-create herself, liberate herself, by modifying her behavior with civilization and with people. It's a very romantic play, and not at all political."
"Barbara pays close attention to the text, and respects it, whereas a lot of directors regard the play almost as a springboard," says Thatcher. "She's a real generous director, open to the ideas of the cast and crew, and those things filter down. She's also generous as an employer. I was committed to doing both `Pericles' and `Macbeth,' but then we adopted our daughter-the timing was a complete surprise-and I told Barbara I'd have to drop out of `Macbeth.' There was a pause, and a slight panic, and then she said, `Of course you can.' She has a great big heart. That might be her greatest strength-and maybe her greatest weakness."
"My impression initially is that a kind of spirituality is at the center of this company," adds co-star Wentworth, a member of the Stratford Festival company. "It's a good thing to hear in these economic times, when so many theaters are concerned with just the botttom line. There's also an energy Barbara has that's infectious. People want to give their all.
"I guess the major difference for me, working with her the first time, is that few women direct a Shakespeare play-or, for that matter, a Shakespeare company. It's a very male-dominated industry. There's a sense of feminine energy here, whereas doing Shakespeare usually is like being in a locker room with the guys. So it's interesting to see a filtering through of a female consciousness."
Gaines' approach to Shakespeare is called the Folio technique, which she says is not taught in many places in the world. "I learned it from Patrick Tucker, who was associate director of training at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It's using the original scripts of Shakespeare, and finding the clues that he gave. For instance, semi-colons are very important. You know why? Shakespeare meant them to be an emotional goose; whenever you see a semi-colon, it means right after it, there should be more energy. There's also repetition. When we repeat something in our lives, we do it for emphasis. So if Richard III is going to say the word `crown' 18 times in one speech, maybe it's something important to him. The amazing thing about the Folio is that punctuation equals characterization. I have seen mediocre actors look like geniuses using the technique. So many directors don't take the time to go into the text."
Gaines, who is 47, first discovered Shakespeare as an adolescent. "I think I always loved the sonnets. Because, you know, when you're 13 years old and your nose is much too big for your face, and when you think that no one will ever pay any attention to you, the sonnets are there. The first one I fell in love with was, `When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes . . .' I mean, none of the boys really liked me."
Others do not share such lovely memories of the Bard-a barrier which she readily acknowledges.
"Shakespeare," she says firmly, "was not meant to be read. His plays were to be seen. And the only way to get a lot of people to see it is to drag them, kicking and screaming, to the theater. Which I've personally done, several times.
"You wouldn't believe how many converts you make. Now, it's not 100 percent, but it's a lot. We've had letters saying, `I hated Shakespeare, I didn't want to go, now I want a subscription."'
One of four children, Gaines was reared in Port Chester, N.Y., near Manhattan, to which she would travel to attend the theater-"everything"-with her grandparents.
It so happened that her father was a director-early television, then commercials. "The biggest lesson I learned from my dad-besides the fact that there's always a creative solution to any problem-was that he treated everyone on the set exactly the same way, from the man who brought in the doughnuts to Bob Hope."
She enrolled at Northwestern University for its theater department. "Wallace Bacon, a professor in the department of interpretation, taught Shakespeare, and it was obviously the turning point in my life, only I didn't know it then."
From 1976 to 1980 she lived in Manhattan, working a lot in theater and commercial work, but she missed Chicago. "I hated being in New York, just knowing that your life doesn't mean anything there, that nobody really cares. I remember the first day when I moved back here in '80 and walked over to the lake at Fullerton beach with my 6-month-old golden retriever and I turned around and looked at the skyline and I went, `My God. I've just moved from hell to heaven.' "
In 1980, she remembers, Shakespeare was not a hot commodity here. "Coriolanus," the thinking went, wasn't exactly a cash cow. She started teaching, then called up a dozen of her actor friends and said she'd teach them all she knew about Shakespeare once a week, if they paid her to conduct a workshop. Within two months, the 12 became 40 (including a "wonderful street kid" named Aidan Quinn).
In 1985 the workshop segued into a showcase of various scenes, "To Shakespeare, With Love," performed over three weeks at the Second City. That was followed the next year by a production of "Henry V" on the roof terrace of the Red Lion Pub.
Then, in 1987, Shakespeare Repertory launched its first season at the Ruth Page Theater with "Troilus and Cressida." Gaines became the artistic director of the company, with the nuts and bolts handled by producing director Criss Henderson (who says that ticket sales account for about 43 percent of this season's $1.2 million budget, the rest mainly coming from corporate sponsors).
Sadly, Gaines' father died unexpectedly during dress-rehearsal week. "It was devastating," she says softly. "But he's still a presence in my life. I know this sounds goofy, but I have a feeling he's there every opening night, sitting in the back row."
It was the first of two deaths of people close to her. For two years, she had been dating Michael Merritt, a highly regarded Chicago set designer who died of cancer at age 47 in the summer of 1992. ("He had a huge talent, and a huge presence. He was just a great guy. And a tortured artist.")
Gaines remembers that, at Northwestern, Wallace Bacon taught her that Shakespeare brought out the humanity of every character. "What that really means is that Shakespeare just didn't write beautiful words. He wrote about the human behavior under those words that is absolutely universal.
"I think people are tired of all the schlock in the world. They want to get back to who we are as human beings because a lot feel so isolated in our lives, and Shakespeare-when he's done well-expands the human heart.
"Look what's happening in the schools, with all the art and music being cut. We could easily become a nation of monsters. When you see school groups respond to our plays, you actually have the hope that life can get better.
"Quite frankly, my very favorite moments with Shakespeare Rep are watching high school kids, whether inner city or suburban. They all have the same response. They hoot, they howl, and some of them give standing ovations. These kids are totally, emotionally involved. And that, to me, is the payoff."
Gaines pauses, uncharacteristically. "I love the theater. It really is an extended family, and, yes, I'm the mommy. And the daddy. You know, when I was in my 20s and 30s, I always wanted to have kids, but it just didn't work out. And now . . ." Gaines laughs, heartily, characteristically. "You always have to be careful what you wish for."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times