Much Ado About Sonnets

The two-year-old Actors' Project Theatre Company is the first to admit that with Love's Fire, it's shamelessly cashing in on the current cachet of William Shakespeare. "He's hip and young, but older crowds recognize him, too" says Irene Adjan, the company's cofounder. But since the Bard-inspired theater piece -- which features a short play each from Eric Bogosian, William Finn, John Guare, Tony Kushner, Marsha Norman, Ntozake Shange, and Wendy Wasserstein -- brings together more contemporary playwrights in one evening than any other regular-season theater company does all year, no one is complaining. That is, no one looking for an antidote to the middlebrow sameness of the works that too many South Florida theaters present.

The anthology piece started life as a dramatic homework assignment, commissioned three years ago by New York's Acting Company, which sent a different Shakespearean sonnet to each of seven American playwrights and asked them to write a play about it. Love's Fire premiered at the Guthrie Theatre Lab in Minneapolis in 1998. That it has shown up in South Florida a mere 18 months after its genesis seems like a small miracle -- albeit one that's nearly hidden away. Few spaces are less promising than the tiny Studio, where the Actors' Project Theatre Company performs, a musty pillbox just a few blocks from downtown Fort Lauderdale.

Yet I don't think Shakespeare would mind, given the liveliness of this production. With a company of eight (four men and four women), in which acting talent isn't evenly dispersed, the quality ranges from brilliant to annoying, but I'm still recommending it. Where else are you going to get a tiny musical by William Finn, author of the Falsettos trio, much less a Wendy Wasserstein or Marsha Norman work?

The thoughtfulness that went into the choice of material seeps into the technical aspects of the show as well. The seven one-acts unfold on a single inventive, multipurpose set, made up of variously shaped movable blocks and columns covered with parchment on which sonnets have been scrawled. A backdrop, echoing the production's red, black, and white color scheme, reproduces lines from different sonnets. An upright piano completes the set.

As for the works themselves, most of the writers took great liberties with their assignments, giving us expressionistic responses to the sonnets. For example, Ntozake Shange's jazz-poem play Hydraulics Phat Like Mean, her interpretation of Sonnet 128 ("How oft, when thou, my music, music play'st") contains both literal interpretations of the Bard and riffs on his themes. "Is there a way you can make me sound like that?" a man moans to his would-be lover, a sultry woman playing the piano. If only the rest of Shange's one-act play were as sexy. Directed by Robert Craig Dawson, the drama is spelled out in a teasing dance, unfortunately performed by two company members (Adjan and Christopher Carlisle) who are anything but natural hoofers and from whose mouths Shange's jive lingo sounds forced.

A happier -- and riotously funny -- result is Tony Kushner's entry. Called Terminating, this small masterpiece -- a response to Sonnet 75 ("So are you to my thoughts as food to life") -- is well directed by actor John Fionte. Its star, however, is Michael McKeever, who plays the protagonist, a confused schlub who arrives unannounced at his therapist's office and begs his doctor to have sex with him. Her response? "I'm going to charge you for this visit." There's no way to reproduce on paper the hilarious tenor of this play, partially because Kushner's dialogue nearly self-combusts on its own genius, a postmodern Abbott and Costello routine, and partially because McKeever delivers it with an inspired lunacy that belies the technical polish and subtle acting choices he's making.

Since McKeever gets all the good lines, it's a good thing he earns them. Few of the performances in this production -- which showcases its actors, offering each at least a half-dozen different roles -- are as deft. In fact, only Fionte possesses the dexterity or inventiveness to match McKeever. My advice to the Actors' Project founders, Amy London and Adjan, is to seek out more actors of this caliber. No one else in the cast makes an impression, much less seems to know how to convey information with movement or line readings. A work like Love's Fire deserves performers who can stand up to it.

As for you theatergoers, if you're wondering whether you should brush up on your Shakespeare before you step out to the theater, rest easy. Each sonnet is read aloud by an actor after each play. I'm still puzzling over the difficult Sonnet 118 ("Like as to make our appetites more keen"), the inspiration for Eric Bogosian's Bitter Sauce. Not that it really matters. The humor of Bogosian's commentary on love is clear enough, revealed in a story about a woman who confesses to her fiance that she's been having an affair with a biker. (When the biker shows up, the fiance tells him the woman is dead, which really complicates things.) The centerpiece of this work is Fionte, who plays the fiance like a hapless suburban drone -- the kind of guy any woman might cheat on but whom you feel sorry for anyway.

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