Once unremarkable, the formerly bleak JFK Street staircase into the basement of The Garage now leads to the new performance space of one of the most interesting theatrical experiences in Boston: the Actors’ Shakespeare Project.
The Project, which kicked off its sixth season on Wednesday with “The Taming of the Shrew,” is a local theater company dedicated entirely to intimate and engaging productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Unlike many companies who operate out of one theatre, the Project’s productions crop up in unexpected locales, bringing the spirit of Shakespeare to myriad unconventional spaces. These temporary theatres foster an intimate connection between the players and the audience and work to eliminate the common stigmas of inaccessibility and intellectualism that surround Shakespeare.
“I have been really struck by a couple of experiences I had had both as an audience member in the theatre seeing a couple of Shakespeare productions in this very intimate space… I’d seen a lot of Shakespeare that I’d enjoyed, but I’d always felt on the outside of it,” says Benjamin Evett, the Project’s Founding Artistic Director. “In these experiences I really felt a depth, clarity, and power that I hadn’t experienced, and I was really anxious to give that experience to other people in Boston.”
For “The Taming of the Shrew,” The Project began renting the basement of The Garage about a month ago. The space has since been rebuilt as a theatre—with lighting, dressing rooms, a space for the audience, and a set based on the oft-overlooked induction to “The Taming of the Shrew.” The play itself deals with the unrealizable love of Lucentio for Bianca and Petruchio’s attempts to tame the obstinate object of his affection, Katherine, the titular “shrew.” The induction, though, establishes the story as a play within a play; a drunkard is subjected to a cruel trick that convinces him he is a lord, and the rest of the play is performed by actors commissioned by the trick’s perpetrator to indulge the drunkard’s fantasy.
“I was looking for a setting that would be a slightly down-and-out sleazy bar,” says the show’s director, Melia Bensussen, “and the basement of The Garage has given us the opportunity to transform it into a kind of funky out-of-the-way bar.”
In using the induction, the Project believes that makes “The Taming of the Shrew” more accessible; the play within the play takes place in Padua, but by setting this production in the tavern shown during the induction, the Project brings the show onto more familiar ground, which is enhanced by the remote feel of The Garage’s basement.
The constant process of relocation with each new show aids the Project’s driving mission to spread Shakespeare’s insight and power by bringing his works to communities that possess few opportunities for local performance.
“We’re really interested in getting young people into the theatre,” Evett says. “We think that our particular approach to these plays does make them accessible in a way that doesn’t condescend… or reduce the integrity of the play but actually informs it, in a way.”
Driven by a commonly held belief in Shakespeare’s position as the greatest playwright of all time, the Project is unwavering in its conviction that, despite their mission to fundamentally change the way his plays are presented, the man’s work is eternally and transcendentally significant.
“It’s like going back to basics again and again and again to figure out what makes us tick,” says Allyn Burrows, the current Artistic Director. “The mechanics of the writing are such that they tap into the human heartbeat. If you look at iambic pentameter, that’s the same sound that a human heart makes.”
Through several educational programs based around theater and Shakespeare, the Project counters the persisting belief that Shakespeare’s works are inapplicable to modern times with a focus on the ways that the themes and the language of the plays tap into essentially human issues. “Even though he talks about sweeping things,” Evett says, “what he really understands better than any other writer is the intimate, personal struggles between people.”
Popular adaptations of “The Taming of the Shrew”—“Kiss Me Kate” or “Ten Things I Hate About You”—emphasize the opinion that the play is a portrait of misogyny and a comedic study of gender relations—one that continues to entertain. “We never grow tired of looking at how men and women fight and fall in love,” Evett says. But he and the Project see even more relevant themes beneath that.
“Kate’s journey is about figuring out how to play nice with others, and that’s not something that she does naturally,” Bensussen says. “With this cultural moment and this presidency, we’re looking for civility in discourse and we want to find a vocabulary for collaboration and not obstinacy, and the play speaks to that in that it can create harmony in that way.”
In this production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” the Project will endeavor to prove yet again the sustained cultural and human relevance of Shakespeare’s works.
“Shakespeare has done so much that every generation is compelled to reinterpret him because of the characters, the power of his stories and the deep understanding he has of human nature.” Evett says. “He transcends time. There are a lot of great plays out there—a lot of great plays. But there’s nothing like Shakespeare.”