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Georgia Shakespeare stages a romantic threesome 

Actors Courtney Patterson and Joe Knezevich juggle a trio of amorous roles this summer

MAKING LOVE: Actors Joe Knezevich (left) and Courtney Patterson wind down after a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Bill DeLoach Photography

MAKING LOVE: Actors Joe Knezevich (left) and Courtney Patterson wind down after a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Joe Knezevich and Courtney Patterson had a little trouble kissing each other at first. The two Atlanta actors first played opposite each other in Georgia Shakespeare's 2003 production of Cymbeline. At one point, Knezevich's villainous Cloten forces a kiss on Patterson's hapless Imogen in a bit of action they worked out in the rehearsal room. In their third performance before an audience, something went wrong. "Joe came in too quickly and his teeth hit my upper lip," says Patterson. "I felt the bump but didn't know I was bloodied until I started to taste iron."

Knezevich was horrified, but couldn't show it. "All of her teeth were red," he recalls noticing. "In the scene, I'm supposed to be spitting venom at her, but in my head, I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, are you OK?'"

Their smooching skills have improved with practice. "We've kissed a lot in plays over the years, and I think they're different every time," Knezevich says. "I started calling her 'the kiss monster' at Aurora Theatre's Boeing Boeing."

"I'd be all over him. He'd stall in a line, and I'd be all over him," says Patterson.

Now artistic associates at Georgia Shakespeare, the Atlanta actors have worked together in 21 shows over the past decade, and have been paired up romantically in nine of them, including the unhappily married young couple in the Alliance Theatre's superb Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 2004. Knezevich and Patterson could be this summer's Hepburn and Tracy as they play lovers in three light comedies for Georgia Shakespeare's summer repertory season.

In Illyria, John R. Briggs and Eric Frampton's musical version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Patterson cross-dresses as a woman disguised as a male servant to Knezevich's Duke Orsino. In Much Ado About Nothing, their Italian nobles Beatrice and Benedick engage in a "merry war" of witty banter without realizing they're made for each other, until their friends trick them into falling in love. And in Oscar Wilde' The Importance of Being Earnest, Patterson's aristocratic Gwendolyn wants to marry Knezevich's upstanding Jack Worthing, but largely because she believes him to be called "Earnest," and she's obsessed with having a husband of that name.

Knezevich and Patterson think that Jack and Gwendolyn generate the most heat, despite the characters' need to maintain Victorian decorum. "I think Earnest is entirely lustful because there's no touching. It's so buttoned-up. There's a lot of heavy breathing, but nothing physical," says Knezevich. "[Director Sabin Epstein] and Courtney have steered Gwendolyn in this incredibly possessive way. She looks at me like she's got a new iPod: 'My own Earnest!'"

For most of Illyria, the romantic currents go only in one direction, since Orsino carries a torch for Olivia (Anna Kimmel), while the disguised Viola pines for Orsino. "For most of the play, she's my male servant, so it's like we're bros," says Knezevich. "During the Western song, we get drunk on tequila and sing the last note of the song together. There's an intimacy that develops between us that's strong."

Patterson lets the audience see Viola catch some physical closeness where she can. "I have to sort of sneak in those things," she says. "At one point he puts his arm around me, and I sneak a little nuzzle with him. It's a little silly, but no less heartfelt."

They find that Much Ado's characters build the strongest attachment. "With Beatrice and Benedick, it's a more grown-up love, a more mature love for each other. It's less steamy, but a much deeper passion," says Patterson. Off stage, the two actors took on a few of Shakespeare's lines to extrapolate their shared history. "We decided that several years, prior, Beatrice fell for him and he fell for her, but he was a ladies' man, so he moved on."

Knezevich continues, "Clearly they both felt they lost the one, and can't go back. They're too proud, their defenses are too strong. So when they engage in their battles of wit, underneath is a pain of lost love. You don't play that, since you want to entertain, but it makes [the performance] deeper."

Of their three couples, they both suspect that Beatrice and Benedick will have the brightest future. "They have the benefit of time and self-knowledge and knowledge of each other. They know each other better than any two people in the play," says Knezevich. "It's hard to talk about Illyria because it's such a fantasy. They kiss at the end and live happily ever after. In Earnest, though, they're going to have a hard time. Gwendolyn's basically going to get older and turn into [domineering] Lady Bracknell, and Jack's going to become [detached] Lord Bracknell."

Patterson and Knezevich's romantic sparks stop at the edge of the stage. He describes his relationship status as "spoken for," while she's married to chef Nicolas Quinones. As actors, they've developed a sense of mutual ease that helps their chemistry feel fresh, for the audience and for each other, even long into a show's run. Patterson tells him, "I feel very comfortable on stage with you. Depending on the play, it's easy to lock into either 'Ugh, you annoy the shit out of me!' or 'Oh! Earnest!'"

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