April 26, 2009 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
The Berkshire Theatre Festival opened its 2009 season early at the Unicorn with a one day event that united the Shakespearean macho of actor Jonathan Epstein with the Sonnets of William Shakespeare, all in honor of the birthday of the Bard.
Billed as Love in the Afternoon; Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the Story Behind Them one might have expected an experienced actor with a beautifully cadenced voice to stand behind a lectern reading from the sonnets and linking them with biographical comment.
Indeed a lectern stood on left stage. But Epstein was not behind it. Instead he was all over the stage and even out into the aisles among the audience. And there was no reading of sonnets. The sonnets were in Epstein’s head and as he became the speakers within them, he pulled us, the audience, into actual participation in the event.
With enthusiasm and glee he had the whole audience experiencing assonance in the joys of joining in all the repetitions of a single vowel such as ‘A’ reappearing in a sonnet’s first twelve lines, only to be avoided in the couplet.
At other times he cajoled an audience member onto the stage to participate in the delivery of a sonnet. When alone on the stage he was often Shakespeare himself: scolding, envying, or flattering the recipient of his words. And his delivery heightened the moods, tones, and concerns of the poems’ contents.
A much-quoted (and in my day memorized by school children) sonnet such as “Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments” can have its meaning interpreted depending upon vocal delivery, point of view of the speaker within the poem, and the mixture of bawdy Anglo-Saxon puns entwined in the more sedate classical English.
Between sonnets Epstein chatted concerning just who was being told what in a particular sonnet. And he called aspects of our audience participation “five finger exercises for the soul.”
All in all, a delightful ninety minutes, difficult as it is to attempt to describe it.
It would be a boon if Jonathan Epstein could return each April to share his Shakespearean knowledge and dramatic experience and make “Love in the Afternoon” a yearly occurrence such as the BTF has done with Dickens at Christmas.