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Curiocity: All-Male British Company Brings Shakespeare To MN

For those that have seen Shakespeare plays before or those looking to experience them for the first time, one thing's guaranteed: You've never seen Shakespeare like this.

The British Shakespeare company, Propeller, has arrived in the Twin Cities to perform "Twelfth Night" and "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Guthrie Theater, bringing a new approach and contemporary interpretation.

The 14-member, all-male acting troupe keeps a sharp, rigorous focus on the Shakespeare text, zeroing in on the words of these iconic pieces and finding ways to take a fresh approach on stage for their ever-changing audiences.

This is the company's first time in the Twin Cities and so far, they said it's been an impressive stay.

"The Guthrie is a remarkable building and the Wurtele Thrust Stage, it's a heck of a thing to work with because we have not been using a thrust for the whole tour, so this is our first proper thrust stage that we've worked with," said Propeller cast member Joseph Chance. "The audience has been incredibly supportive here, which is good."

The Guthrie's thrust, which features audience seating around three sides of the stage, took some adjustment for Propeller's artistic director -- and not a lot of time to get things set. But having toured internationally for the better part of its 15-year history, it's something they've become accustomed to.

For Chance, and fellow Propeller cast member Christopher Heyward, this marks their first year in the touring company -- and a transitional one, at that.

This is the largest influx of new actors the company has ever seen. Of their 14 members, seven are new and seven are veterans. In typical years, it's more like two or three that are newcomers.

"There's only been 57 actors who've ever been in Propeller in those 15 years, which is really unusual. So it's exciting to be part of," Chance said. "It gives you a sense of family. People kind of commonly say there's a band of brothers' feel to what we do and there is. It's kind of a bit like being part of a sports team."

Joseph Chance Propeller, The Guthrie
(credit: Manuel Harlan)

Propeller started 15 years ago as something of a trial run -- Artistic Director Ed Hall thought it might be interesting to bring Shakespeare to the theater but with an all-male company.

"It just so happens to be that it's a bunch of guys and that's how its worked," Heyward said. "It seems to work well and the audience enjoys it and it just so happens that that's how it used to be, back in the day. It's just grown out of an experiment."

Heyward said the group also produces what they call "pocket shows" -- hour-long versions of some of Shakespeare's best work, like Henry V. These are then taken to schools to get kids interested in Shakespeare.

"It's still the Propeller style, still the Propeller ethos, there's nothing kind of dumbed down," he said. "The whole ethos of Propeller is that it's text first, it's all about the language, making sure that's spoken properly and then, you know, you can have fun on top of that."

Heyward said learning Shakespeare to such a detailed and accurate degree is certainly an ongoing process.

"It takes a long time and in rehearsal -- we spend five weeks rehearsing a show -- and in that time, the majority of it is spent on the text-work, making sure certain words are really hit out. 'Cause if you don't hit them out, the audience really isn't going to know what's going on," he said.

Still, growing up with rich Shakespeare history, these actors have a bit of an advantage on the material.

"I was very familiar with Shakespeare," Heyward said. "But then it's rammed down our throats. We learn it, we study it at school and everything but it's a lot different from studying something and watching it."

Being part of an all-male company also means several actors get to try their hands at female roles. Chance, who plays Viola in "Twelfth Night" said it adds an entertaining dynamic to their work.

"There's a direct physicality which is great fun to play. We have to build a kind of style, I suppose, of storytelling, which involves imagination," he said. "We deliberately say, 'this is theater.' You know, we're not going absolute naturalism here. We are men playing women. And in my case, I'm a man, playing a woman, who then plays a man. So in that multi-layered effect, you get this kind of imaginative journey. ... Theatrically, that's really good stuff. And the audience gets excited."

It's a unique experience -- and one Heyward says is certainly one-of-a-kind.

"No one does Shakespeare like Propeller, no one does. We know because we see everyone do Shakespeare in England and no one does it like Propeller," he said. "If you come and see a Shakespeare play by Propeller, you'll never forget it."

Propeller's "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Twelfth Night" will be performed at the Guthrie Theater until April 6. For more information, and to get tickets, click here.

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