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All the World's His Stage

The architects chosen to muse on the subject of Globe-ness in the exhibit are also refreshingly free of any reverential or authenticity-soaked approach to Shakespeare. If anything, they go too far in the opposite direction, reconceptualizing the theatrical experience to the point that one wonders if Shakespeare could survive the transmutation. John Coyne, a scenery and costume designer with an architecture degree, offers "A New Global Theater," using the obvious pun on the theater's name to imagine a performance that, through the miracle of the Internet, live streaming and big monitors, could fuse together actors on different continents into a single, virtual performance.

This fantasy is a familiar one, from big spectacles that use live video feeds, and from the spirit of older artistic fantasies of uniting people through art. Alexander Scriabin, a Russian composer who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, imagined a grand multimedia synthesis that would be a mystical bridge to the great, universal kumbaya. He was, unfortunately, insane.

And it's hard to imagine the real, theatrical impact of Coyne's dream. If Lady Macbeth is in Singapore and her poor henpecked husband is in Paraguay, how much of their subtle psychological warfare would communicate to an audience in Honolulu? It could be great. It could also be like watching "Hamlet" on your cellphone. In any case, it seems almost counter-theatrical to break the intimacy of real people in a real place acting for a live audience, with no technological screens to divide them from the experience. After years of fretting about the so-called "fourth wall" that supposedly divides audiences from the stage, we're coming full circle, erecting a virtual fourth wall to enforce that divide.

An architectural firm called H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, which has deep experience in theater design, including the renovation of Radio City Music Hall, proposes bringing theaters directly to the people. Following in the spirit of Joe Papp, the producer who gave New Yorkers a much-loved Shakespeare series in Central Park, H3 proposes a theater plunked down right in the middle of Times Square, and another one that would float around to the various boroughs of New York. Cool. But isn't the endpoint of this fantasy television -- entertainment that comes to you? The goal of taking theater to people has the downside that people don't have to make any particular effort to go to the theater.

If Coyne fantasizes about a world in which people on different continents are linked, H3 proposes a world in which people from different boroughs don't have to cross a bridge to gather together for a collective experience.

The young Iranian-born architect Michele Saee proposes what is the most lovely looking architectural object, but it's hard to make sense of it. Saee proposes using electronic monitors to track the movements of a performance of "Romeo and Juliet," and would then plug his squiggly little maps into a computer, manipulate them and generate fantastical shapes that somehow would add up to be a theater. They look a little bit like Zaha Hadid's fabulously unbuildable buildings, but it's hard to see them as functioning theaters. And there's an odd, perhaps unintended meaning built into them: They are the maps of something that has already happened. If theater is only alive in performance, Saee's buildings are the embodiment of a dead object, a memory of a performance that is in the past. It's also hard to imagine where he'd put the bathrooms.

The best of the designs, because it is modest, practical and closely connected to a genuine populist tradition, is Jennifer Siegal's plan for a "GlobeTrotter," an expandable theater carefully packed like an accordion with attachable balloons into a tractor-trailer. Dressing rooms are contained in inflatable pods, walls fold out to make the stage acoustically lively, lighting and scenery and seats for the audience are all carefully attended to and just as carefully designed for compact packing.

Yes, this is also about bringing Shakespeare to the people, but it's not quite the same as a floating theater in New York. Siegal's Office of Mobile Design has created a practical, doable theater that echoes, in its conception, the long history of taking Shakespeare on the road, to small towns in Nebraska and Wyoming. And, of course, it wouldn't have to bring just Shakespeare. You could pack Jean Genet and "The Vagina Monologues" into the Glob eTrotter just as easily. The best legacy of the National Building Museum's engaging show would be for someone to cough up funds for a couple of GlobeTrotters.

Reinventing the Globe: A Shakespearean Theater for the 21st Century runs until Aug. 27 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Call202-272-2448. http://www.nbm.org


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