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Ensemble dramatize sonnets to intriguing, moving effect

Master-Mistress of My Passion
Directed by Alan Brody.
Music by Adrian Childs '94.
Kresge Little Theater.
Oct. 28, 29, 30 and Nov. 4, 5, 6.
8:00 p.m.

By Leane Clarke

One of the truly amazing things about the Shakespeare Ensemble's fall production, "Master-Mistress of My Passion," is the way it came about. It began without a script, without a set, without music, without even a clear idea of what it would look like in the end. What resulted is a beautiful and moving piece that is more poem than play -- fitting for a production based on Shakespeare's sonnets.

The sonnets are primarily about love, in all its myriad forms and with all its myriad troubles, and "Master-Mistress" follows suit. It starts out simply enough, with couples pairing up under Cupid's influence and snuggling with each other, but soon the partners are abandoning each other and trying out new partners. Many of the characters are unhappy about this, and one turns to drugs for consolation. The situation abruptly degrades into an orgy, after which there is much scolding and much regret, and the original couples pair up once more and live happily ever after.

That is a woefully inadequate simplification of "Master-Mistress." Yes, it's what happens in the piece, but the experience is much more three-dimensional. To accompany the plot -- which isn't so much a plot as a thread -- there are the words of Shakespeare's sonnets, the music (played on-stage behind screens by a 6-piece group), the set, and the lighting. It is quite possible for one or more of these elements to get lost in the experiencing of the other two or three. I lost some of the words. I was too busy watching the characters move around the stage and interact with each other and too busy listening to the music for my brain to process Shakespeare's words as well. But I don't think this is a bad thing. The experience of the actions and the music (along with the words I heard when I made a deliberate effort to listen) was more than enough. Catching all the words would certainly have added to it, but missing them did not really detract from it at all.

The Shakespeare Ensemble truly worked as an ensemble in this production. There were 10 actors in the production, and all 10 of them were on stage and in view (even when behind screens) for the entire performance, which lasts a little over an hour. They worked very well together, which is fortunate in a piece that involved so much physical and emotional intimacy between characters.

The set for "Master-Mistress" is very simple, consisting of a few white cloth screens and two groups of elastic cords stretched between floor and ceiling. This minimal set creates the perfect space for the actors to work in, providing the characters with obstacles and places to hide, yet not interfering with or intruding on the experience created by the characters' actions. The screens capture and reflect the light, light which conveys very accurately and subtly the changing moods in the piece.

The music is performed by a group of six musicians, playing violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, and piano. The composer attended rehearsals to follow the developing production, and the result is accompaniment that is far more than background music. Like the lighting, the music helps to convey the changing moods of the piece, but unlike the lighting, the music is far from subtle. In places, the characters are forced to compete with the music -- a situation which was deliberately created and which works very well for the most part, but which also causes a couple of the quieter actors to be drowned out in a few places.

"Master-Mistress of My Passion" will be a surprise for those expecting a production like the Ensemble has done in the recent past, and a surprise as well for those who think all the sonnets are pretty, delicate poems about true love. It is a pleasant surprise, though -- an intriguing and moving piece, and one definitely worth seeing.