Readings track flip side of love at Shakespeare & Company

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LENOX — Hot on the heels of Valentine's Day, Shakespeare & Company aims to take a heated look at the flip side of romantic bliss.

In "Lovers' Spat — Shakespeare's Famous Couples Encounters," some of the Bard's most iconic characters spar passionately with their partners, in a staged reading Saturday and Sunday in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.

Some of the company's best-known actors — including Elizabeth Aspenleider, David Joseph, Jennie Jadow, Jason Asprey and Tamara Hickey — will present scenes from both beloved and lesser-known plays such as "Taming of the Shrew," "As You Like It," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," directed by new artistic director and company veteran Allyn Burrows.

The presentation is part of a series of monthly staged readings that began with a new play in December and concludes with a March weekend of works by local playwright Joan Ackermann.

"It's important that we keep our programming up throughout the year in whatever form it can take," Burrows said. "If it means welcoming our friends onto the property, that's what we want to do."

In the distinctive Miller Building, administrative gatehouse to the company's sprawling Lenox campus, Burrows sat down with Hickey, his partner of 14 years, their 5-year-old daughter, Sadie, playing nearby.

"Rather than taking the straight angle of woozy romantic stuff [for Valentine's week], we thought we'd go the other way and have people have the romantic experience by watching other people fight," Burrows explained.

The scenes feature a fistful of duets — stormy Kate and Petruchio, star-crossed Romeo and Juliet, misdirected Viola and Olivia, villainous Richard III and Lady Anne, and battling Beatrice and Benedick; the confused "Dream" quartet of Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander; and the countryside trio Rosalind, Phoebe and Silvius from "As You Like It."

As the only married couple in the cast and the scenes, Burrows and Hickey portray the poignant parting of Hotspur and Kate from "Henry IV Part I."

They are looking forward to a rare opportunity to perform together.

"We used to do it all the time, then babysitting fees intruded," Burrows explained. They last appeared in 2013 in Boston as Henry and Catherine of Aragon in the well-received production of "Henry VIII," directed by Shakespeare & Company co-founder Tina Packer.

"In a way it pulls us into the question of how Shakespeare was really intrigued by the woman's voice — 'why won't you talk to me?' — and [how] the men are essentially shutting down, being incommunicative, or flying into a rage," Burrows said.

In a conventional production, Hickey noted, performers focus on the polished end result, under pressure to "get it right" on opening night. With a staged reading, however, "people see actors reading words probably for the second or third time, so things are happening spontaneously much more frequently. I think people pick up on that. It's where the energy surge comes from, like having a little peek behind the curtain."

To do it well requires a connection, she stressed, "a certain skill to lift it off the page and give it to your scene partner and the audience, while knowing that you don't know what the next word is."

With limited rehearsal, expect an improvisational feel, offered Burrows. "We'll all just have to get our scenes ready and bring them in, like in Shakespeare's time, when everyone showed up [to rehearse] with their scrolls."

The famous fighters will not be left alone with their squabbles. Nationally recognized comedian and Berkshire native Kevin Bartini will be on hand to moderate the mayhem.

"He does the warm up for 'The Daily Show' with Trevor Noah and is very funny,'" Burrows said. "He came up through Shakespeare & Company's schools program and has gone on to be very successful on the comedy circuit. We'll put him in a referee shirt and treat it like a ten round boxing match."

Gregory Boover will lend some musical punctuation to the proceedings.

With all the onstage argument in store, Hickey perceives a deeper meaning to the quarrels.

"On the surface these seem like lovers' spats," she said, "but underneath every fight is love. Otherwise you wouldn't care enough to fight."

Given all this stirred up passion, what happens afterwards is for audience members to decide.

"It's going to make for a great date night," Burrows said. "It's probably going to be quite raucous."


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