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Old Globe's Barry Edelstein is thinking big about the Bard

Arts and CultureTelevision IndustryAndre BraugherBilly CampbellKevin SpaceyDavid StrathairnJeffrey Wright

SAN DIEGO — A fascinating experiment is underway at San Diego's flagship theater, the Old Globe. Now under the leadership of Barry Edelstein, the theater is seeking a return to the form of its Tony-winning heyday under Jack O'Brien.

Can the Globe's outdoor Summer Shakespeare Festival be reshaped into a national center for the very best in American Shakespeare?

That might seem like an overreaching quest, but in appointing Edelstein artistic director, the board of directors has chosen a bona fide Shakespeare expert to lead the charge. Edelstein, making his Globe directing debut with "The Winter's Tale," the first indoor Shakespeare offering produced at the theater in more than a decade, isn't timid about thinking big about the Bard.

Few outside Britain can match his credentials. A Rhodes scholar with a master's degree in English Renaissance drama from Oxford, Edelstein wrote "Thinking Shakespeare," a useful guide to acting Shakespeare that was the fruit of his years of teaching at the Juilliard School.

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In his role as director of the Shakespeare Initiative at New York's Public Theater, he helped usher in a vibrant new era of Shakespeare in the Park that included Dan Sullivan's much-heralded 2010 revival of "The Merchant of Venice" with Al Pacino.

"Barry is a marvel, someone who combines a scholar's precision with a showman's sense of delight," said the Public Theater's artistic director, Oskar Eustis. "He made a huge impact in his years at the Public, and I think he's perfect for the Old Globe. I expect great things."

Edelstein, who led New York's Classic Stage Company from 1998 to 2003, has amassed a glittering array of Shakespeare directing credits, including "Julius Caesar" with Jeffrey Wright, "The Winter's Tale" with David Strathairn, "As You Like It" with Gwyneth Paltrow and "Richard III" with John Turturro.

Pairing well-known actors with classical roles seems to come naturally to Edelstein, whose production of "The Winter's Tale" stars Billy Campbell, best known for his TV work ("Helix," "The Killing," "Once and Again") but no stranger to the boards (having served two tours of duty in previous Globe Shakespeare productions).

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I sat down with Edelstein in his office after observing the tail end of a day's rehearsal, in which some blocking was hammered out, a few acting notes were given and the accompanying piano playing of Michael Torke's original score was tailored to the stage action.

Wearing a black sports jacket, white shirt and jeans, Edelstein, who relocated to San Diego from New York with his wife and two children in 2012, exudes a bespectacled urbanity, part humanities professor, part theater director. With breathless ease, his conversation toggles between textual matters and more pragmatic staging concerns.

The adrenaline running high on a day in which this interview was sandwiched for him between rehearsals and opening-night glad-handing for another show, Edelstein made quick mention of a couple of big changes he had instituted for this year's summer festival, which will consist of his staging of "Othello," Mark Lamos' directorial crack at "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" and the touted Fiasco Theater production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Into the Woods" that originated at Princeton's McCarter Theatre.

Edelstein has dropped the festival's repertory company model and reduced the acting contract from a 23-week to a 10-week commitment. These moves would suggest a determination to raise the caliber of the acting. He was reluctant to say anything that might cast aspersions on past ensembles, but he acknowledged that the shorter commitment would be more amenable to the hectic schedules of in-demand actors.

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As for dismantling the repertory operation? "Rep requires each one of the three plays to work in context of each other," he said. "And so you can't really give each play its own world. They're all sharing common elements. The changeover has to be able to happen in one four-hour crew call. I want to be able to liberate directors' imaginations to fully realize a world for each individual play. Which I think is the gift of American directing, different from English directing."

Edelstein has nothing but praise for British veteran Adrian Noble, a former leader of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who was appointed artistic director of the festival during the rocky reign of Chief Executive/executive producer Louis G. Spisto.

"My admiration for Adrian is complete," says Edelstein, who saw Noble's production of "Henry V" with Kenneth Branagh while he was a student at Oxford and still considers it one of "the greatest evenings of Shakespeare" he's ever spent.

So why wasn't Noble, who concluded his tenure last summer in a season that included his outstanding production of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," able to raise the stature of the festival beyond San Diego County?

Rather than tackle that question head on, Edelstein drew a cultural distinction: "I have a passionate devotion to the idea of American Shakespeare. And Adrian's sensibility is British. Many of the directors and actors he hired were British. And I think, 'I'm in Southern California in 2014. It's got to reflect California.'"

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Does this presage Globe revivals of "The Merchant of Venice" transplanted to moneyed Newport Beach and "Romeo and Juliet" on the Mexican border?

Edelstein said that most of the Shakespeare he has directed has been in modern dress but that his approach to period is more abstract than literal. The "Othello" he's directing this summer will take place "in a kind of 19th century," but he promises there won't be any real "stones of Cyprus."

"I think there needs to be something that is modern and contemporary about it, even if the clothes are pumpkin pants and ruffs," he said. "Just things that give it a contemporary accessibility."

What Edelstein values most is "muscular American stage speech that is linked to what Americans do so brilliantly, which is physicalizing the emotional experience of the play." A patriot when it comes to native talent, Edelstein knows there's more to performing Shakespeare than a plummy accent.

Knowledgeable as he is about the technical aspects of blank verse, he's not pedantic about such matters in rehearsal: "Here, we talk about all the textual stuff. But if the actor can't make the moment work, then we say, 'Screw the line ending. Screw the verb. What matters more is the emotional connection to the material and the communication with the other character that you're talking to.'"

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If he had the opportunity to field an all-star Shakespeare company, Lily Rabe, Al Pacino, Kevin Kline, Kevin Spacey, Andre Braugher and Liev Schreiber would all be on it. (Mine, as promised late last year, would also include John Douglas Thompson, Diane Venora, Dakin Matthews, Michael Stuhlbarg, Charlayne Woodard, Lauren Ambrose and — though I've never seen her in Shakespeare — Laura Linney.)

But Edelstein isn't merely interested in showcasing established talents. The Globe's MFA acting program with the University of San Diego provides an opportunity for him to mold the next generation, as does working with an actor such as Maya Kazan, his Perdita in "The Winter's Tale," the granddaughter of directing legend Elia Kazan and the sister of actor-writer Zoe Kazan.

"She is a star, star, star," he exclaimed. "She doesn't have classical training — it's her first major Shakespeare role. But I just feel like, 'Wow, if I can start pointing this amazing, incendiary talent toward Shakespeare, then five years from now, she's going to have a Rosalind in her that's going to be major.'"

Edelstein is just as excited about luring back those actors who might have strayed from their Shakespearean roots but can't resist the rhythm of iambic pentameter.

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"Billy Campbell is an interesting case, because he did Shakespeare here years ago at the Globe," Edelstein said. "He did Shakespeare in New York way before that. But his TV stardom has sort of taken him on a different path. And so, you're almost grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and going, 'Come back, you have to do this. You're in the prime period of your life for the great roles in Shakespeare.'"

The bigger challenge might be developing the next wave of directing talent. "It's really tough to put together a list of a half-dozen American Shakespeare directors in their 30s and 40s, especially with any gender diversity or ethnic diversity in it," he said. "I feel a strong responsibility to deal with that, given the resources that I have at my disposal."

Shakespeare is only part of the Old Globe's repertoire, which includes musical theater and new writing. But Edelstein believes that a surge of sharply delivered Shakespeare can lift all boats, and he wants the festival to be engaging in a wider conversation with American theater through co-productions and transfers. Collaborating with the Public Theater, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., the Globe could help form what Edelstein calls "a national Shakespeare railroad."

His impressive background makes him a natural leader for such a network, and his ambition has already given the Old Globe's waning prestige a much-needed boost.

Edelstein's vision is to establish "a de facto company" of actors and directors who return with regularity to Balboa Park, the theater's idyllic setting. Dreaming aloud about performers, he offered the following bold scenario: "Jay O. Sanders comes in, does a Shakespeare, goes away for a couple of years. Andre Braugher comes in, goes away. Liev comes in once every three years. And then the supporting company has a fair number of familiar faces like [current 'Winter's Tale' cast members] Mark Nelson and Angel Desai."

A family affair, in other words. At home in Southern California yet appreciated all over this land.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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Arts and CultureTelevision IndustryAndre BraugherBilly CampbellKevin SpaceyDavid StrathairnJeffrey Wright
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