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Houses divided 

Festival and Tavern offer opposite takes on Shakespeare

"Two houses, both alike in dignity, In fair Atlanta where we lay our scene ..." It's not a rivalry as bitter as the Capulets vs. the Montagues in Romeo and Juliet. But the Georgia Shakespeare Festival and the New American Shakespeare Tavern have battle lines drawn sharply between them.

Atlanta is a global rarity as a city with two theaters devoted to Shakespeare, although each takes a drastically different approach. The Tavern uses Shakespeare's intent at the time of his writing as its guide, and avoids modern or anachronistic productions. The Festival, more often than not, stages plays in atypical periods or with elaborate concepts, seeking new routes to connect to audiences. It's the difference between serving Shakespeare straight-up, or with a twist.

Philosophical opposites, the two troupes have much in common. Each began in an untraditional performing space: The Tavern players, formally called The Atlanta Shakespeare Company, started performing at Manuel's Tavern in 1984, while the Festival began two years later in a tent on Oglethorpe's campus. Each mostly relies on a regular pool of actors, and each branches out beyond the Bard. This year, the Tavern staged Arthur Miller's The Crucible while the Festival did Death of a Salesman.

Mostly the Tavern avoids taking liberties, consciously seeking to evoke the theater experience of Shakespeare's day, using an approximately Elizabethan set, Renaissance-style costumes and live, acoustic music.

Jeffrey Watkins, the Tavern's artistic director, once told me that he'd seen intriguing concept shows, but felt that the gimmick wears out before the play ends. It's true that some concepts can be sheer goofs. Rick Miller's one-man touring show MacHomer presents the Scottish play with all the roles speaking in voices of "The Simpsons" characters. (Duff Beer drinker Barney Gumble plays, inevitably, MacDuff.)

But concepts taken seriously can be hugely affecting. The Festival's Julius Caesar, set in Huey Long's Louisiana governorship, at first seemed a stretch, but offered unforgettable imagery of both Mardi Gras and lynchings. Concept shows can require elaborate sets and costumes, and fortunately those are two of the Festival's strengths.

But each company has weaknesses. If you're familiar with the Tavern's regular approach and are well-versed in the play it's doing, the show may be feel like business as usual and hold few surprises. At the Festival, there's nothing to be done when a concept fails to pay off. Last summer's As You Like It transposed England's Forest of Arden to the American frontier, and you felt like you spent more time watching the Wild West idea than the play itself.

With its current production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Festival out-Taverns the Tavern. Director Tom Markus offers a playful, almost cartoonish version of "Merrie England," with town criers, pumpkin pants and backdrops that look like villages in Disney animation. Audiences will have the chance to literally compare the companies' approaches when the Tavern stages Merry Wives as part of its annual August "Three-peat."

And the companies will again go head-to-head when the Tavern presents The Taming of the Shrew in September, while the Festival stages the show in October. (The Festival announces its programming earlier, so it may be that the Tavern wants to steal some of their thunder.) Festival Artistic Director Richard Garner anticipates using the play's Italian setting for a fantastical, Fellini-esque interpretation.

Which company will prevail? In the end, the playwright himself will be the last one standing. Shakespeare can put up with anything.

STAGE COACH: Atlanta theater is losing one of its unsung heroes as Elisa Lloyd, actress and vocal coach, has been wooed away by the prestigious Guthrie Theatre of Minneapolis. On Aug. 26, she begins as the Guthrie's resident voice and text director, a job that involves getting dialects right and help actors iron out their vocal problems. Lloyd has long been an invaluable vocal coach on the Atlanta scene, working with nearly all of the city's theaters. While accents may seem like a small part of a show, they may be the most crucial. You can look past a production with threadbare costumes or ramshackle sets, but if the voices sound phony -- if, say, the English accents sound more suitable to Austin Powers -- the entire experience will be compromised. For years, Lloyd provided a strong countermeasure, and she'll be hard to replace.

ENTRANCE: Atlanta's beleaguered Jomandi Presentations has named Byron Saunders, former development director of 7 Stages, as its artistic and executive director. Saunders replaces interim artistic director Andrea Frye, who was released from her contract in May.

LOCAL HEROES: The improv team of Dad's Garage Theatre won first place in the Masters of the Universe Improv Tournament in Alberta, Canada, prevailing against teams from such countries as Austria, London, Canada and the United States. Off-Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.

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