Theater Review - Shakespeare Tavern sets records by completing the Bard's canon

The Two Noble Kinsmen and Edward III round out the final obscure plays

We're never going to see a new Shakespeare play, unless somebody stumbles across of a copy of Hamlet 2: The Wrath of Horatio. But the New American Shakespeare Tavern offers audiences a chance to see some plays so obscure and seldom performed, they might as well be premieres.

With its new repertory of The Two Noble Kinsmen and Edward III, the pubby Atlanta playhouse will have produced every play in the Shakespearean canon. That milestone needs some clarification: Last fall, the theater completed the 36 plays of the First Folio, the compilation of Shakespeare's work published in 1623, seven years after his death. The "canon" includes three other disputed or co-authored texts, Edward III, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Pericles. The Tavern estimates it's the only company in America to have staged full productions of all 39 works.

The playhouse has frequently taken on big creative projects, such as 2008's three parts of Henry VI featuring 31 actors in 152 roles, or 2003's four-play, nearly 11-hour repertory of Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V. Artistic director Jeff Watkins decided about a year ago that the 2010-2011 season would include the Tavern's "final four" — Timon of Athens, Henry VIII, Edward III and Kinsmen — to polish off all of Shakespeare's plays. The four almost never get performed anywhere due to their toxic reputations as substandard Shakespeare.

But Watkins finds visiting the lesser-known Shakespeare to be a "joyful" experience. "I always assume that there must be some reason these plays aren't done. I keep expecting to find the dud, or the one that bores the audience, but we find that they're all eminently playable. They're like these jewel boxes with trick mechanisms, but we have the keys to them."

The Tavern ensemble theorizes that some of Shakespeare's collaborations may have stemmed from the Globe Theatre auditioning for a new playwright, and that Timon's Thomas Middleton didn't make the cut, but Kinsman's John Fletcher did. The actors can find the plays more difficult to memorize than the Bard served straight up, says Watkins. "I'd say that everyone agrees that the hardest chunks are the ones that aren't Shakespeare."

The Tavern subscribes to an "original practices" approach to the material, which attempts to stage the work as close to the original, Elizabethan style as possible. "The stage directions do lead modern companies to do some goofy Elizabethan stuff, but we're determined to follow them, knowing they never get performed," says Watkins. "Kinsmen says, 'Do a Morris Dance.' We didn't even know what a Morris Dance was. It's the male counterpart to the Maypole dance, and it rocks my world."

Now that it's completed the canon, the company plans as an encore to stage all of Shakespeare's comedies in the order in which they were written. As Watkins put it in his toast celebrating the First Folio completion, "Let's go through this great book again and again, shall we?"

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