Digging Into Shakespeare

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Editorial Review

Shakespeare, for Better or Worse

By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 20, 2009

Double, double, toil and trouble: For the longest time, that's all Shakespeare was for actor-director Jon Spelman.

"Everything bad that ever happened to me happened doing Shakespeare," Spelman says. "I don't remember anything happening doing Pinter." If he were to recount every Shakespe-rience that has made him fortune's fool, it would take hours. But don't worry, Spelman has it down to 90 minutes.

His falling-out and protracted reconciliation with the world's greatest playwright is the subject of "Digging Into Shakespeare," Spelman's one-man, one-musician production that opens Thursday at Round House Theatre in Silver Spring. Round House has previously presented Spelman's monologue "Off the Map," as well as his take on "Frankenstein," told from the creature's point of view.

Here, Spelman weaves soliloquies from some of Shakespeare's plays (two from "Richard III," a little "Romeo and Juliet," some "Titus Andronicus" for the bloodsport lovers in the house) with his own self-deprecating recollections of disastrous performances and the star-crossed love affairs they begat, or vice versa. Plus a sonnet. He even retools "Venus and Adonis" as a blues number featuring musician Tina Chancey on the viola de gamba, a sort of Renaissance-era guitar played with a bow. Chancey, director of the early-music ensemble Hesperus, plays several other instruments throughout the show that you probably couldn't identify by sight or sound.

By 1980, Spelman, 66, had already been associate artistic director of one theater company (the Oslo State Theatre Company) and founded another (the Florida Studio Theatre) when he walked away from what he calls "official, formal theater" to go full time as a raconteur. By then, the Bard had exacted a toll both physical (broken ankle, broken nose) and emotional (broken marriage). Good Jon Spelman and scabrous Will Shakespeare remained not on speaking terms for a decade and a half, give or take.

Only when Spelman felt compelled to introduce his now 20-year-old daughter, Anna, to Shakespeare did he dare return to the plays. "She taught me when she was a small child finally to understand 'King Lear,' " he says. In that one, you may recall, the trouble starts when Lear asks his three daughters to declare how much they love him. The aged king exiles the one who answers the most honestly and ultimately proves to be the most loyal.

Entering into fatherhood in his mid-40s brought the play into focus for Spelman. "I had always said I would never have a child, so in a way I was like a Lear who had dismissed his children," he explains. It brought home something elemental: "You need to be ready for what Shakespeare's got for you."

Appropriately, "Digging Into Shakespeare" wraps up with Spelman's recollection of taking Anna, at 15, to see "The Tempest," which features another of the Bard's great father-daughter relationships.

Though there are one or two instances of blue language in his show, Spelman deems it perfectly appropriate for adolescents. Shakespeare buffs will get a kick out it, he says, as will people who think they don't get the Bard, or haven't yet. "A lot of it is reminding people how much Shakespeare they already know, whether they've read a play or not."