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Journeying with the Bard

Robert Brustein gives Shakespeare new life with his play 'Mortal Terror'

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By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 11, 2011

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In 1944, when Robert Brustein was 17, he saw Laurence Olivier’s dynamic film version of “Henry V.’’ Then he saw it again. And again. By the time the young Brustein was done traipsing to the moviehouse, he had seen it 32 times.

“I was glorying in the language,’’ recalls Brustein, now 84. “Laurence Olivier became my god. And I was converted to Shakespeare.’’

Brustein proceeded to do some converting of his own, writing frequently and incisively about William Shakespeare during more than a half century as one of the nation’s most influential drama critics and essayists. Three decades ago, when Brustein founded the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, he made a statement by choosing an innovative production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’’ directed by Alvin Epstein, as the ART’s inaugural effort.

In recent years, Brustein has taken his passion for Shakespeare one, or rather three steps further: He’s written a trilogy of plays with the Bard as his protagonist, the second of which, “Mortal Terror,’’ will premiere at the Modern Theatre this week. (The others are “The English Channel,’’ which was performed in Boston four years ago and later produced in New York, and “The Last Will,’’ which is slated to be staged in New York next year.)

“Mortal Terror’’ is a coproduction of Suffolk University, where Brustein now holds the title of Distinguished Scholar in Residence, and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. It is directed by Daniela Varon, who also helmed “The English Channel’’ in New York, and features a cast that includes Jeremiah Kissel, John Kuntz, Georgia Lyman, and Stafford Clark-Price as Shakespeare.

“I’ve never enjoyed anything so much as I have writing these plays,’’ says Brustein. “First of all, I love Shakespeare above all writers. Second, it was interesting to me to try to find the man himself through the plays and sonnets.’’

One play in particular, “Macbeth,’’ provides the fulcrum of “Mortal Terror,’’ a compound of historical events and Brustein’s imagination. In the play, set in 1605, King James I summons Shakespeare and commands him to write a work that will validate James’s right to the throne by vindicating the Stuart succession.

Moreover, the king, a passionate believer in the existence of witches, insists that Shakespeare find a way to work a few of them into the story line. Shakespeare reluctantly complies. A pragmatist, he is not governed by the irreverent and satirical impulses that land his friend, the playwright Ben Jonson (played by Kissel), in hot water with the monarchy. (Shakespeare faces a different sort of peril when Queen Anne, played by Lyman, flirts with him.)

But however unwillingly he entered into the playwriting assignment, Shakespeare soon finds himself consumed, waking and sleeping, by the dark force of his own creation: a drama that is, witches and all, a masterpiece. Brustein’s play also draws unmistakable parallels to 9/11 and its aftermath by focusing on a religiously inspired attempt at terrorism: the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament and kill the king.

In venturing to put words in the mouth of the most celebrated writer in the English language, “I felt no compunction, I felt no hesitation,’’ Brustein says, adding with a laugh, “I probably should have.’’

If the notion of Robert Brustein, playwright, seems surprising, it shouldn’t. For one thing, he’s written 10 plays, including the Shakespeare trilogy, and has adapted 11 others, including works by Chekhov, Ibsen, and Pirandello. For another, playwriting was his earliest theatrical aspiration. “But I never had enough conviction about my own abilities to follow through, so I did other things,’’ he says.

Quite a few other things, as it turned out. In 1966, as the newly named dean of the Yale School of Drama, Brustein founded the Yale Repertory Theatre and served as its artistic director until 1979. He left after clashing with the president of Yale, the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, but soon found a home at Harvard. Brustein held the position of artistic director at the ART from 1980 until he retired from that post in 2002. (He retains the title of founding director.) At both Yale Rep and the ART, Brustein directed and acted in numerous plays.

At the same time, he consistently (and often pugnaciously) weighed in on contemporary theater from his perch as the drama critic for The New Republic (from which he is presently on leave). Brustein now has 17 books to his credit, including “The Tainted Muse,’’ a 2009 study of Shakespeare, and “Rants and Raves,’’ published this year.

“He’s a consummate man of the theater, and a bit of a Renaissance man as well,’’ observes Varon. “There’s nothing the man can’t do. Apart from his abiding passion for the theater, he’s a man with great curiosity about human nature and the human condition.’’

When she first set to work with Brustein on “The English Channel’’ in New York, Varon says, she was surprised by his openness to her suggestions. As a young actress, she had performed in a production at the ART, where Brustein seemed an imposing figure to her. What she found with “The English Channel,’’ and has found again with “Mortal Terror,’’ is that Brustein is “hugely collaborative and very receptive and very appreciative of the input of everybody involved. Bob is so delighted when he discovers new things.’’

That sense of perpetual discovery clearly lies at the heart of Brustein’s enduring fascination with the playwright he has returned to again and again, as a subject of both critical and dramatic exploration. “We’ll never get to the bottom of Shakespeare,’’ he says, sounding not at all unhappy about that.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com

MORTAL TERROR Coproduced by Suffolk University and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.

At: Modern Theatre, Sept. 15-Oct. 2. Tickets: 866-811-4111, www.bostonplaywrights.org