Shenandoah Shakespeare Express breathes new life into the Bard. 

Fighting Shakesfear

Shenandoah Shakespeare Express
Vaulting Ambition Tour
Windy River Winery
June 10-13
$12 in advance; $15 at gate; $30 for all three plays

Are you leery of King Lear? Does the thought of Othello make you a little yellow? Do you think Hamlet is just a ham? You may be suffering from "Shakesfear." Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (SSE) defines this affliction as "the reflexive intellectual paranoia that grips [people] when considering the work of a 400-year old dead European white guy."

For more than 10 years, SSE has made a mission of fighting Shakesfear and has succeeded famously, performing for more than 60,000 people annually. Managing Artistic Director Jim Warren credits one simple idea for the company's success: "Shakespeare's plays work best when performed like they were originally designed," he says. "This idea has been part of everything we've done."

SSE's shows are performed on a bare stage with performers and audience sharing natural lighting. "The fourth wall is a relatively new concept," says Warren. He's referring to the way most modern plays are performed, as if the audience is removed from the action, peering in at the proceedings through a one-way mirror. "There used to be more of a communal kind of theater," Warren explains. "The actors were trying to get the audience on their side. There are many places [in his plays] where Shakespeare was acknowledging the audience."

SSE brings its interactive style to Windy River Winery in Beaverdam this weekend, June 10-13, a stop on its Vaulting Ambition tour. The year-long, cross-country tour includes productions of "The Merchant of Venice," "Macbeth," and "The Knight of the Burning Pestle," a comedy by Shakespeare's contemporary, Francis Beaumont.

"Ambition" is more than just the name of a tour for SSE. The company has embarked on a far-reaching mission to raise its profile. Based in Harrisonburg for 10 years, SSE moved to Staunton this spring and hopes to open a new indoor playhouse by the end of 2000. Construction of a replica of the Globe Theatre will follow three or four years after that. Warren says the time is right for the move: "We think Staunton is perfect for developing a 'destination' Shakespeare festival, where people will come to visit specifically to get their Shakespeare fix."

SSE, working with a consortium of Virginia colleges also will offer an accredited two-year program where graduates will receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in Shakespearean studies.

Though it may seem implausible that the sleepy Shenandoah Valley would become a hotbed of Renaissance-era dramatics, Warren believes in the power of the company's simple principles. "Doing Shakespeare this way produces theater that is fun, exciting and accessible," he says. ... "The idea worked."

With SSE on the case, Shakesfear may be wiped out in our

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