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Visiting director packs punch with Shakespeare production

"Be as naughty as you like," urges Tina Packer, encouraging junior Fernando Paiz to ooze charm and personality as the Bastard in Shakespeare Ensemble's King John. "Act from the balls," she tells him during the rehearsal of a later battle scene, evoking the character's determination and manliness.

Ms. Packer, currently in residence at MIT with members of her Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company, is directing the rarely performed King John (opening tomorrow, March 13), with enthusiasm, earthiness and infectious good humor.

The students in the Ensemble, sharing Ms. Packer's ardor for the Bard, are flourishing under her direction. "Shakespeare can be exciting, irreverent and outrageous--and is best when it is," said Rob Pensalfini, a graduate student in linguistics and philosophy.

Unlike MIT's other theater groups, Shakespeare Ensemble requires members to fulfill a one-term apprenticeship before becoming involved in the acting, directing, designing and technical work of Ensemble productions. Despite this extensive commitment of time and energy, the group has grown to more than 30 members--the largest in recent years--due in part to the involvement of Ms. Packer, who has infused the company with what Mr. Pensalfini described as "her enormous energy and commitment and infectious love of the material."

As a director, Ms. Packer encourages her actors to explore the limits of their characters and emotions, urging them to heighten and energize their scenes. "Love what you are saying; be bright and articulate," she told them at a recent King John rehearsal. "The more you can think of words as precious things and not garbage in space, the better an actor you'll be."

Shakespeare & Company's teaching and directing techniques help students grow as people as well as actors, said Young E Kim, a junior in economics and literature. Working with the company has been "the most rewarding theater experience I've ever had and probably will have in my life."

"In the short time Shakespeare & Company have been at MIT, with Tina Packer anchored as a member of the faculty, we have seen changes in student performance, both subtle and explosive," said Professor Janet Sonenberg, section head for theater arts. "I know they delight in the intellectual daring of MIT students, and the students delight in Shakespeare & Company's emotional daring. It is a lovely match of

King John the obscure

King John is so obscure that even Ms. Packer, who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and at the Royal Shakespeare Company and founded Shakespeare & Company, has never done the show. Claiming that the play is "a bit of a mess," Ms. Packer wondered why the women who dominate the action for much of the first four acts are so summarily dismissed in the fifth and why John is killed in a way that seems to make no dramatic sense. "The play interested me because it's so elusive," Ms. Packer said, adding that she liked that it has very strong women's roles and lots of physical action.

To help prepare the Ensemble with a work that's largely unknown, chemical engineering graduate student Kevin Dahm served as dramaturg for this production, researching the history to provide background and analyze Shake-speare's dramatic liberties. "One of the things I find intriguing about this play is that you can't break it down into the heroes vs. the villains," said Mr. Dahm, who, in his second Ensemble show, is playing King Philip of France. "All of the characters are extremely human. I don't find anyone in the play completely likable except maybe [the children] Arthur and young Henry."

King John marks the 25th of Shakespeare's 37 plays produced by Shakespeare Ensemble since its formation in 1974. In addition, they perform annual "Scene Nights," occasionally venture into non-Shakespearean territory, and created an original piece based on Shakespeare's sonnets titled Master/Mistress of My Passion in 1993.

Shakespeare & Company's residency marks a homecoming for King John assistant director Andrew Borthwick-Leslie (SB '76 in literature), a Shakespeare Ensemble alumnus. A major change at MIT since his undergraduate days, he said, is the degree of support that the theater programs now enjoy--especially with the design facilities in Building E33. "We were supported, but not as solidly or as centrally by MIT's administration," he said. "I felt like a renegade and a rebel back then."

King John runs Thursday through Saturday, March 13-15 and March 20-22 at 8pm in the Sala de Puerto Rico on the second floor of the Stratton Student Center. Tickets are $7, $5 for students/seniors, $1 off per ticket for groups of 10 or more. For more information or reservations, call x3-2903 or e-mail .

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 12, 1997.

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