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The re-christened Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey kicks off its season with ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’

By: Matt Smith
   With his imposing frame, serious brow and deep, booming voice, Sherman Howard seems every bit the classical Shakespearean actor.
   He’s taken on the title roles in Hamlet and Macbeth, offered a tour de force performance in Luigi Pirandello’s Enrico IV at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in Madison last season, and is playing Benedick in the season-opening Much Ado About Nothing at the festival (now called The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey). But as much as Mr. Howard loves acting in the Bard of Avon’s plays, he often avoids going to see them.

Sherman Howard (left), pictured with Jenny Gravenstein in Enrico IV in 2003, returns to The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Much Ado About Nothing. Mr. Howard plays Benedick and his wife, Donna Bullock, is Beatrice in the season-opening production, running May 27 through June 15 in Madison.

   "I don’t as a rule look forward to seeing much Shakespeare because it’s so often done badly," says Mr. Howard, a familiar figure from his many TV and film roles. "I think the great majority of the public thinks it’s boring, and most often in the theater it is, because it’s not acted well and it’s not directed well. Rather than really investing in the substance and the characters of the story, so often you see ‘Well, we’re going to make it in gangland Chicago.’"
   Fortunately for Mr. Howard, excellent acting and directing are the hallmarks of the newly re-christened Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, entering its 41st season and 13th under artistic director Bonnie Monte. The 53-year-old actor offers this simple summation of last year’s Enrico IV experience with Ms. Monte: "It was wonderful, playing the role of a lifetime for my favorite director of all time."
   With Much Ado About Nothing, Mr. Howard gets the additional pleasure of acting opposite his wife, Donna Bullock, the clever bachelorette Beatrice to his equally hardheaded bachelor Benedick. Seated in a downstairs dressing room at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the postcard-perfect Drew University campus, the couple says Ms. Monte is making this experience a positive one, as well.
   "Bonnie creates a sense of community, where everybody is there to make the play as good as possible," Mr. Howard says. "Having done an immense amount of research on the period and certainly the text, and bringing in her creative vision, she creates this rich, wonderful playground for the creative artists that she’s assembled to create a miracle, if possible."
   Adds the spritely Ms. Bullock, whose credits include Mother in the Tony Award-winning Ragtime: "There’s real collaboration. Wherever an idea comes from, if it’s a good one, it’s immediately embraced."
   Mr. Howard and Ms. Bullock are in Madison for seven weeks — four weeks for rehearsal, plus the three-week run of Much Ado May 27 through June 15. Being away from their West Coast home for so long meant bringing along their 13-year-old daughter, Hannah, who has a small role in the play and gets to watch her parents discuss their roles over dinner each evening.
   "A good deal of our work, and this is true of all actors, is to essentially invent the background, to take the few events that are suggested or directly referred to in the play and essentially populate our imaginations with a rich, long, vivid and varied history," Mr. Howard says. "We, in this case, have the advantage of being able to go home at night having both just experienced the rehearsal. We’ve been able to collaborate to a degree that I think is rare in the process, when two people are playing a couple of sorts."
   The 47-year-old Ms. Bullock, who got to act alongside regal theater couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in Foxfire early in her career, concurs with her husband’s assessment.
   "Unless you really have that kind of a working relationship with somebody, that kind of comfort level," she says, "you’re always like, ‘Is this OK? How do you feel about that?’ You always feel like you’re infringing on the other actor’s way of working. If he (my husband) says something I don’t like, I go ‘No, I don’t like that.’"
   Mr. Howard and Ms. Bullock previously played opposite each other as Hamlet and Ophelia at the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival some 13 years ago, when Ms. Bullock was pregnant with their daughter. In the interim, however, most of the couple’s collaborations have involved reading lines before each other’s TV and film auditions.
   "Auditions pop up at the last moment," Mr. Howard says, "and it’s actually a frustration because so much of the work that we’ve done together has been in shorthand. There’s not enough time, and consequently you develop bad habits. You have to cut to the chase, to go for the result rather than go through the process that will lead to a richer, more unexpected, more unique result. So we’ve had to consciously restrict or break habits and really allow the process to grow in a more organic way."
   Because Much Ado About Nothing turns on the relentless banter between Beatrice and Benedick, a great deal of the couple’s preparation time has been spent getting a firm grasp on Elizabethan English.
   "The first time I read it I didn’t know what was going on," says Ms. Bullock. "Everything that came out of my mouth was completely arcane. But in the process of learning the language, it starts to take on the sound of real talk. And then I was surprised that when you play it full on — it’s not a language that we know or idioms that we’re familiar with — it becomes perfectly clear poetry."
   Mr. Howard and Ms. Bullock, who are hoping to one day retire from Hollywood to do more plays, agree that while understanding the Bard’s language is essential, a knowledgeable audience and well-executed movements are equally important to a successful Shakespeare staging.
   "I saw ‘Henry V’ at Stratford (England) with Kenneth Branagh," Ms. Bullock says. "I stumbled in — I had been backpacking in England — and talk about understanding. The audience understood and it was amazing how much I understood, and not because I understood every word, but because I was in an audience that understood the subtleties."
   "If I say something really witty that breaks up the room and which makes her angry, that’s what’s interesting," contends Mr. Howard. "If the audience doesn’t get how witty it was because they didn’t understand a critical word, that’s not nearly as relevant as what happened in the room, because that’s the story. To the degree that we invest in that process and make that process clear, the language is literally immaterial.
   "I have seen astounding films and plays performed in foreign languages," he adds. "It’s the old rule of blocking, if a play is well blocked it will work. I realize that’s kind of a heresy if you’re talking about Shakespeare but it’s true, even of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare probably would have been the first to admit it."
Much Ado About Nothing plays at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison, May 27-June 15. Performances: Tues.-Wed. 8 p.m.; Thurs. 8 p.m. (7:30 p.m. June 5); Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2, 8 p.m. (7 p.m. May 31); Sun. 2, 7 p.m. (except June 15); June 11, 2 p.m. Tickets cost $23-$43.
The season continues with The Glass Menagerie, June 24-July 20; That Scoundrel Scapin, July 16-Aug. 3 (Greek Theatre, College of St. Elizabeth, Morristown); King John, July 29-Aug. 17; Pygmalion, Sept. 2-28; Othello, Oct. 28-Nov. 23; and A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dec. 2-28. For information, call (973) 408-5600. On the Web: