In the wrong hands, Shakespeare can sound like ancient Greek.
We’ve all experienced that at some point: huddled in some dark theater or stretched out on a blanket in Delaware Park, straining to make sense out of some impenetrable volley of Shakespearean wordplay.
But in the right hands, the dark musings and idealistic yearning of Shakespeare’s poetry can be artfully rehydrated with the smart application of 21st-century context and contemporary emphasis. Thus are fossilized double-entendres and language long divorced from popular understanding infused with contemporary meaning.
Those hands are hard at work in Kelli Bocock-Natale’s charming original production of “Love’s Passionate Fire,” a Valentine’s Day-pegged compendium of Shakespeare’s sonnets pushed through a filter of dance, movement and modern sensibilities.
What’s perhaps most clever about Bocock-Natale’s approach is its admission of that very problem: That modern audiences can have a difficult time with Shakespearean language, especially the dense and layered language of his sonnets.
After Eric Rawski delivers a heartfelt rendition of Sonnet 115, the one with all that fussy business about the decrees of kings and the tyranny of time, the rest of the cast stands around literally scratching their heads. The cast members agree that they “didn’t get it,” which prompts Rawski to break down the meaning of the sonnet in modern terms that would register with anyone who was ever even remotely in love.
The rest of the sonnets in the production don’t get such a didactic treatment, but they are mostly well chosen and paired with actors adept at bringing their emotional content to life.
Young Noah Doktor’s clear and clean delivery of Sonnet 12, about the contradictions of love poetry, hardly requires any interpretation – all the more impressive as the actor is 8. Bobby Cooke’s starry-eyed performance of Sonnet 105, about an acquaintance he finds to be “fair, kind, and true,” is tinged with enough yearning and authenticity to coax an invented story out of theatergoers’ imaginations.
When Joe Natale recites Shakespeare’s famous 116th sonnet (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”), he does so from the apparent wisdom of a life that has taught him well whereof he speaks.
And when Rawski shouts into his iPhone the bipolar stanzas of Sonnet 34, it’s easy to see it as a fight with his significant other, who exasperates and charms him in equal measure. Later, he beats out the anguished lines of Sonnet 40, familiar even in its dated language to anyone who’s ever experienced unrequited love, with an intensity that is riveting: “Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes.”
A woebegone Michael Wachowiak, snarky Nick Lama and self-possessed Jamie Doktor each add useful layers of emotional texture to the evening, which is punctuated with the smart use of coordinated movement and sly transitions that are Bocock-Natale’s trademark.
While not every sonnet registers and some interpretations tended toward the heavy-handed, “Love’s Passionate Fire” is a worthy effort that breathes new life into poetry that seems ancient on the page.
“Love’s Passionate Fire”
3 stars (out of four)
When: Through Feb. 27
Where: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park
Tickets: $20 to $30
Info: 853-1334 or newphoenix.org