2014-09-18 / Front Page

At Redwood, Shakespeare Comes Alive

By James Merolla


Rip Irving has led a Shakespeare group at the Redwood Library for more than 10 years. Rip Irving has led a Shakespeare group at the Redwood Library for more than 10 years. Mid-week, in a room filled with globes, maps, oil-dipped portraits of noble figures, tomes, and thick volumes, a curious few perch reading glasses on the tips of their noses. They rediscover an age where Ajax is not a cleanser, "rooky" is not a first-year ball player, and trumps are not New York multi-millionaires with bad hair.

Welcome to “It’s Wednesday, It Must Be Shakespeare,” at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum, where a half-dozen enthusiasts from all walks of Newport life tackle aloud the tricky prose, couplets and emotional intentions of William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.

Begun more than a decade ago, the original idea was generated by Rip Irving – a sometime actor of note and a current doctoral candidate – who still organizes and leads the group, which usually numbers between six to eight people weekly.

“When we started, I tossed the roles we’d play into a hat. We sort of figured it all out as we were reading,” said Irving, a tall, dapper, silver-haired Newporter who displays polished diction soaked in a rich baritone. The readers are very careful not to step on each other’s lines or read them by mistake.

“We might get caught up and say, ‘Wait, ooh, that isn’t right.’ Then we’d go on,” added Irving. “Now we vary the roles, each taking a few. We go through the entire canon of Shakespeare, the plays and the sonnets. It’s been a lot of fun and very rewarding.”

Weekly through winter on Wednesdays from 5 to 6 p.m., the small group meets to share a mutual regard and reverence for the works that have defined Englishspeaking theater for the past four to five centuries. It doesn’t matter if you are experienced on stage like Irving or a retired grandmother – the goal is to bring Elizabethan prose to life by speaking it aloud.

“It is very informal. It varies in size from week to week,” said Redwood Library Program Director Carolyn Dupont. “They kind of draw lots to see who will read each part and they work their way through the works. Everyone who participates in the readings except Rip is an amateur, so I don't think there is much to be intimidated about,” for newcomers deciding if they want to join in the acting. “It’s a very engaging way to spend an hour if you love beautiful language and Shakespeare,” said Dupont.

The weekly gathering is free and open to the public.

Last week, the readers enacted “Love’s Labour's Lost,” one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies that usually is not performed in repertoire, as it lacks the polish and fluidity of the writer’s peak works. But to hear the group tell it, tripping the tongue over words like “decried,” “affectation,” “scorn,” “perjury,” “cuckoo,” and phrases such as “thrust thy sharp wit through my ignorance,” or “jewel on her sleeve,” or “want of linen (shirtless),” is a squealing delight.

“I came here because I read about this night in Newport This Week. I taught English for many years,” said Ellen Hicks, who came to life in several roles. “Since I retired from teaching I knew I wasn’t going to hear Shakespeare unless I found a conduit somewhere, and here I am.”

“I love Shakespeare! I’m visiting from Houston and found this community of people,” added Karen Hatch, who splits time between Texas and Rhode Island, where she grew up. “I told my friends, ‘I’m not coming back!’ ”

On this night of “Labour’s,” Hatch, Hicks and Irving were joined by Karen Abbondanza (an adjunct professor of philosophy and literature at Roger Williams University), Linda Hammer and Mary Jo Carr, who said they never knew each other until they walked into the reading room on the second floor of the Redwood and opened up the appropriate canon. Now, they are connected by an author, his characters, his words and legacy.

Irving, usually in the minority as a male, said that when another man shows up, “They occasionally do the female parts in a falsetto, which livens up the readings.”

“You have to activate the language from the page,” added Hatch, who called upon acting skills from years gone by. “Obviously, Shakespeare wrote for the actors, and when you read it out loud it comes alive.”

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