Shakespeare fans in the Lowcountry are accustomed to an unquenched thirst. Rarely do they get a chance to take in one of the bard’s plays.
Though Charleston has more than 15 active theater companies, none present Shakespeare’s many comedies and tragedies on a regular basis during the season. Some specialize in mysteries, others in musicals and revues, others still in contemporary works by living playwrights.
One company, however, is determined to hold fast to Shakespeare’s timeless poetry and storytelling. Threshold Repertory Theatre runs a Summer Shakespeare Workshop that explores the art of the great wordsmith and culminates in a full production of a chosen play.
This summer, organizers selected an early comedy, “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” It runs through Aug. 14.
The workshop was started five years ago by Threshold’s technical director Mike Kordek, who adores Shakespeare but would probably risk his life for “Star Wars.”
Kordek didn’t want the little black box theater on Society Street to remain dark over the summer, so he set up a program that would “teach others that Shakespeare’s not scary like everybody thinks he is.”
“When you learn the language, speak the language and see it, it all makes a whole lot of sense,” Kordek said.
That first summer, Kordek selected “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was followed by “Twelfth Night” in 2013, “Romeo and Juliet” in 2014 and “Taming of the Shrew” in 2015. Each time, participants studied the language and history of each show, worked with an instructor and prepared a production.
Chris Marino, a theater professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, led workshops for two years. This time, veteran actors Clarence Felder and Chris Weatherhead of the Actor’s Theatre of South Carolina stepped in to guide the proceedings.
For the past two years, the workshop has been open to the public, Kordek said. Audience members can simply watch and learn, or they can join the actors in lessons, exercises and discussions.
Danielle Festa is directing the play. Festa has been involved in Threshold’s Summer Shakespeare Workshop since the beginning, but as an actress. This is her first time directing since her college days and she’s decided to set the action at a garden party in contemporary Charleston.
She has been working with cast members on language and diction, social and historical context, etiquette and more. Americans are not particularly familiar with the royalty and social hierarchies of Britain, nor English manners and turns of phrase, Festa said. Making the actors feel comfortable with such context “breathes air into their characters and the show, and that’s what helps the audience understand what’s going on.”
This is all the more important because “Love’s Labour’s Lost” has little overt action: no sorcerers, no getting lost in an enchanted wood, no sword fights. It is the Shakespeare play that most relies on wordplay.
“It’s really their inner desires moving them forward,” Festa said.
The play tells the tale of the King of Navarre and three of his friends who decide to forgo the pleasures of the opposite sex and devote themselves to study. Enter the Princess of France and her three ladies in waiting. Masculine celibacy gives way quickly to a different kind of determination.
What ensues is a mix of adopted identities, confused wooing, love, death and promise. The play ends not happily-ever-after, but with matters somewhat unresolved.
Festa said that, in certain ways, the plot resembles real life and the interactions among characters reveal their humanity and vulnerability, despite their royal standing.
“In day-to-day lives, nothing (dramatic) really may happen, what we actually want and need is not necessarily what we (think we) want and need,” she said. And most of us do the best we can under our given circumstances.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” is famous for, among other things, the most rhyming in a Shakespeare play, the longest single scene and the longest single speech. Felder noted that Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom considers the writing some of the best Shakespeare ever produced.
Shakespeare may make rare appearances in Charleston, but over the years he hasn’t been entirely unknown. The College of Charleston’s theater department runs the Summer Shakespeare Project, though nothing has been presented in the past few years. And Laura Rose started Holy City Shakespeare in 2011, producing two plays, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet” in 2012 and 2013 respectively, before taking a hiatus to work on her dissertation.
In 2014, Village Repertory Theatre mounted an adventurous production of “Macbeth,” directed by the College of Charleston’s Evan Perry.
Still, that’s not a lot considering the many Shakespeare festivals and theater companies devoted to the bard’s oeuvre that can be found across the continent.
Felder, who has acted in many Shakespeare productions, including some mounted by the late Joseph Papp, and who has worked with Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, Colleen Dewhurst and others, said acting in a Shakespeare play is “like taking a bath in warm water.”
“What a gift it is, what a guy. It’s just astonishing. ... Not before or since has anybody put a real human being on stage, complete and entire.”
During Shakespeare’s lifetime, he was not writing highbrow stuff; he was creating works with broad appeal.
“People want to be entertained, and Shakespeare was writing nothing but entertainment as he saw it,” Felder said. “Now he is at the top of the literary food chain, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s entertainment.”
There’s a reason he’s so popular. Yet theater companies hesitate to produce his plays, fearing accusations of elitism or failing to appeal to patrons.
That’s nonsense, Felder said. “People are intimidated by it, and they shouldn’t be at all. If anything, he’s the most accessible playwright in Western civilization.”
The best way to present Shakespeare is to present Shakespeare well and trust that he will draw a crowd. “Just do it,” Felder said.
Next summer, Threshold Repertory Theatre will work on “Much Ado About Nothing,” according to Kordek and Executive Director Courtney Daniel. In 2018, the team will present the stormiest of the bard’s fanciful plays, “The Tempest.”
Reach Adam Parker at 843-937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.