+ By Tom Levine + Photos by Allison Zaucha
April 24, 2016, marked the four-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. In 1623, his collected plays were published, many for the first time, in a book known as the First Folio. If you see one at a yard sale, snatch it up; a few years ago, a copy was auctioned off for $6.2 million. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, has 88 of the 233 known copies, and as part of a year-long Shakespeare celebration, the Folger is sending a few out on tour so that every US state can host one. Maryland’s will arrive in early November and be displayed at St. John’s College in Annapolis. The city and the college are almost as old as the First Folio, but St. John’s partner for the First Folio’s visit, the Annapolis Shakespeare Company, is quite a bit younger—it was founded by Sally Boyett six and a half years ago.
When I call to introduce myself to Boyett, she invites me to stop by the “Shakes” and, better yet, “Come see Earnest.” Two days later, I’m at the company’s intimate performance space on Chinquapin Round Road, waiting to see not one but two Earnests, neither of whom are particularly earnest. They are Noël Coward’s characters, the alter egos in his brilliantly witty The Importance of Being Earnest. Coward’s story takes us on a breezy spin through 1890s Britain, and Boyett’s direction gives the production a healthy zing. The actors play it at a smart pace. James Carpenter as Algernon is sharp and clever, a perfect fop. Brian Keith MacDonald’s Jack is a perfect foil, struggling to keep the lid on his suppressed Victorianism.
Boyett is smart, talented, and driven. She grew up in Texas, studying ballet. By age 16, she had been invited to join the New York City Ballet as an apprentice. However, she decided against New York and enrolled at the University of Houston. She studied drama under Sydney Berger, who changed her life. He was not only the head of the drama department, but also the founder and artistic director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival.
When the Broadway run of 42nd Street ended, Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars brought the entire show to Houston, complete with the scenery, costumes, and virtually the entire company. There were three roles open, and Boyett landed one. She joined the Actors’ Equity Association and never looked back. Eventually, 42nd Street moved on, and so did she. She was hired by Walt Disney World in Orlando, joining a group of young actors, singers, and dancers doing five shows a day. “Everyone went on to Broadway and the West End,” said Boyett with understandable pride.
She was cast again in 42nd Street, not in Houston, but with the International Touring Company. Success continued. There was a two-year-long run with the Broadway National Tour of Crazy for You playing Patsy, a role she reprised for the International and European touring companies. Then there were performances at Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hal, and stints in regional theatre in and around New York. About ten years ago, she stopped for a breath. She had four children and moved her family from the suburbs of New York City to the Annapolis area.
Eventually, she was recruited to help students at her children’s school mount a summer production. Boyett had previously taught drama and loved doing it. She envisioned Annapolis Shakespeare Company as a professional company that would also provide education. It has become the largest outside provider of arts education in the county, with members performing regularly for school groups and teaching 16 classes a week at Bates and Brooklyn Park middle schools.
Boyett has brought a wealth of talent to the Annapolis Shakespeare Company. Nancy Krebs, voice and dialect coach, is a faculty member at the Baltimore School for the Arts. She had the actors sounding so convincingly British in The Importance of Being Earnest that it was shocking to hear their natural American accents after the show. Lighting designer Adam Mendelson and scenic designer Jack Golden use their imaginations and technical skills to great effect, overcoming the limitations of the home location’s small stage and short ceiling. Resident Directors Donald Hicken and Tony Tsendeas also serve as faculty members in the drama department at Baltimore School for the Arts.
On the Wednesday evening after The Importance of Being Earnest closes, the company is well into rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet. Scenes are being rehearsed simultaneously on the main stage and in an adjacent room. Most of the cast have come from day jobs, and they’ll be rehearsing six evenings a week until opening night. Notwithstanding, the energy level never wanes.
Hicken, who was a finalist for the 2015 Tony Excellence in Theatre Education Award, is directing on the main stage, essentially giving a master class, dissecting the scene one line at a time—“Tak(ing) a play apart and put(ting) it back together again,” says Boyett. Every word is scrutinized and every line is repeated until the actors find Hicken’s holy trinity: obstacle, passion, and tension. And then there is the choreography of movement, a constant awareness not just of stage space and how the actors physically relate to each other, but also of playing to an audience that sits closely on three sides of the stage.
Later in the evening, Boyett is teaching the cast to dance the foxtrot, a hint of what’s to come; the words are Shakespeare’s, the setting is still in Verona, but the time is post-World War II. It’s not simply the conceit of bringing the show into the twentieth century: the company wants to make Shakespeare more accessible to the public. Despite the immense sacrifices of the Second World War and the defeat of fascism, human prejudices and cruelty still consume us. But so does love. The truth and eloquence of Shakespeare’s writing has endured for over four hundred years, and the Annapolis Shakespeare Company helps keep his legacy alive. █