Curtain rises this weekend on Shakespeare & Company's 39th season

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LENOX >> A wall in the office shared by Shakespeare & Company's interim co-artistic directors, Ariel Bock and Jonathan Croy, is covered with Post-It notes — plays, projects, special programs and events suggested or proposed by members of the company — enough to make up two, even three seasons.

"One of our goals," Croy said in a recent joint interview with Bock in the lobby of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, the smaller of the two indoor theaters on Shakespeare & Company's Kemble Street campus, "is to be able to plan two or three seasons ahead. It would make such a difference for us."

For now, Bock and Croy are focusing on this season, the company's 39th, which starts with Lauren Gunderson's "The Taming," previewing 7:30 tonight, Saturday and next Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre before its official opening June 4.

Set in a hotel room during a Miss America pageant and inspired by the banter in William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," "The Taming" is described as a "blue state vs red state political comedy" that focuses on a politically ambitious beauty queen named Katherine and two other women, political opposites, who factor into her plans. Nicole Ricciardi directs. The cast comprises Maddie Jo Landers, Tangela Large and Lucy Lavely.

"Gunderson plays with colloquialisms within the context of political discourse," Croy said. "It's a very funny play. It gives us a strong start, right out of the block."

This season, the theater troupe's 16th-century namesake is keeping company with 17th-century playwright Aphra Behn ("The Emperor of the Moon," adapted by Jenna Ware) and a bunch of 21st-century playwrights — in addition to Gunderson, Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz ("Sotto Voce"), Liz Duffy Adams ("Or,"), Lindsey Ferrentino ("Ugly Lies the Bone"), Stephan Wolfert ("Cry 'Havoc!'").

The Bard of Avon will be represented by "The Merchant of Venice," which reunites director Tina Packer and actor Jonathan Epstein a play they first worked on together on the outdoor stage at The Mount; the rarely seen "Two Gentlemen of Verona" and the schools touring production, "Twelfth Night," which will be performed outdoors at The Mount.

" 'Gents'," Croy noted, "is considered one of Shakespeare's 'problem plays.' Still, it's very funny and worth doing. It's nice that we're not doing our 22nd 'Midsummer Night's Dream' and taking on a Shakespeare that isn't done often. That's part of our conversation here."

That conversation has a lot to do with the role of contemporary plays at Shakespeare & Company. They are in the repertory, in part, to broaden the theater's base. But the choices, Bock and Croy maintain, are not idle. To begin with, there is the matter of language — Shakespeare's bread and butter. The contemporary plays share a facility for language.

"We were looking for plays that emphasize language," Bock said; "plays in which the playwright shows) an interest in language; a fascination with language and how words are used."

Laughter also is plentiful in the contemporary pieces. That also is purposeful, Croy says.

"Comedy owes a debt to Shakespeare. These plays align theatrically with Shakespeare."

If there is an overriding concern shaping the choices of contemporary plays this summer, it has to do with addressing what Bock characterizes as an inequity between male and female roles.

"We're addressing that," Bock said, "by looking at plays by female playwrights; plays that have strong roles for women."

Shakespeare's name comes first for the Lenox theater and this season, rather than split them between the Packer and Bernstein theaters, both Shakespeare plays are being put front and center in the showcase 400-plus-seat Tina Packer Playhouse.

"We wanted to put the focus on the Shakespeare plays," Bock said. "We wanted to give our Shakespeare actors and directors the main stage."

That main stage will have a new configuration. For the first time in the Packer's 16-year history, seating will be in the round.

"Doing Shakespeare in the round puts actors in an intimate relationship with the audience," Bock said. "It's a way of coming back to a sense of simplicity. It's a coming of age in the Packer."

Audiences also may notice some changes in the 200-seat Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre where, Bock said, "we've tightened the space and improved sightlines. We tried it with 'An Iliad' last season and tweaked it. We think it will make audiences feel more a part of the action."

In marked contrast, this 2016 season was assembled without the turmoil that embroiled Shakespeare & Company in its 2014-15 winter of discontent. Bock and Croy had this season mostly in place by October and approved by the board in November. And while a new artistic director is expected to be named shortly, Bock and Croy already are planning next season

In planning this season, simplicity was the key.

"The transition from The Mount to here (in 2000) was profound," Croy said.

"We did a lot of different things," Bock said. "Now, we've simplified; created a reasonable schedule."

In the end, the play's the thing and on paper, at least, Bock and Croy are excited about the choices they've made. A season of balance, Bock says.

"(It's about) heart, humanity, humor. Very Shakespearean."


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