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Davidson-On-Avon 

College receives Royal treatment

For the next 12 days, the Davidson College campus is the indisputable Shakespeare capital of the New World. The Royal Shakespeare Company, which journeyed across the Atlantic in 2002 to help the prestigious liberal arts college open its spanking new theater, returns with even more bounty in its coffers. This year's RSC visit is a residency, the first of four annual RSC programs through 2008. With the actors, designers and directors of the legendary troupe camping in Davidson through March 20, the RSC encore will be a quantum leap from the testing of the waters three years ago.

A fully mature partnership between Davidson College and RSC has evolved with 141 events scheduled, 20 of them free to the public. Master classes, chamber music concerts, community outreach, and a mini Ides of March new play festival are among the satellite events that will keep the campus abuzz.

But there are three centerpieces to the residency. A three-day "Play On!" Symposium launches this Saturday afternoon with a lecture by Tony Award legend Rosemary Harris. Another coup for Davidson is the "Break Thy Leg" art collection exhibition at the Van Every Gallery, the first time RSC has carried these artifacts from Stratford-on-Avon to the US.

Best of all, there are the plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Julius Caesar, both performed in modern dress.

We caught up with the "two gents" during breaks from technical rehearsals on Sunday. They'd gotten to rest on Saturday following their arrival at Charlotte-Douglas on Friday. Both were still basking in the warmth of the reception they had received on campus.

"Everyone's incredibly welcoming and charming," gushed Laurence Mitchell. "The best of America!"

Mitchell plays Proteus, the wickedest man onstage in Two Gentlemen — and Octavius in Caesar. But he's understandably enthused about being involved in the Davidson residency. This is his first-ever gig with Royal Shakespeare, and he loves meeting people. So he's looking forward to connecting with both the audiences at Davidson and the students.

In Two Gents, Proteus is betrothed to Julia and Valentine's best friend. But as soon as he lays eyes on Sylvia, he betrays both friend and fiancée. Pretty nasty, yet by the end of the comedy, we're expected to join Valentine and Julia in forgiving his considerable trespasses. Such rogues are routine on daytime soaps — or Entertainment Tonight — so Proteus may look quite at home transplanted to the 1930s.

"Psychologically you can argue that he's the most modern," Mitchell agrees. "I think anyone can relate to that sort of duality, where you think you know where your life is and where you're going, and then something knocks you completely off center."

He gets to project more regal petulance as Octavius in Caesar — after a cameo as the Soothsayer who famously warns the egotistical Julius of the fateful Ides. Mitchell is quite comfy in his niche on the dark side.

"That's because of the way that I look, I think. I just look troubled. I can't help it."

Alex Avery, on the other hand, sounds like a natural charmer — and a perfect fit for the credulous Valentine. He even makes the treacherous role he plays in Julius Caesar sound like a lovable rakehell.

"Decius Brutus is the guy who convinces Caesar to go to the Senate," Avery boasts. "Calpurnia [Caesar's wife] has a bad dream, and Decius comes in and says, 'Naw, it's a great dream!' And Caesar gets stabbed!"

In a setting that's intended to evoke Berlusconi's Italy — or Putin's Russia. Avery offers some interesting insights on Two Gents as well. Listening to him, this early Shakespeare comedy sounds like a perfect fit for a college campus.

"We kind of play Proteus as more of a sort of a geeky, nerdy student," Avery confides. "Because Valentine is Valentine, he gets what he wants despite himself. He's kind of the jock of the school, and Proteus is probably in his shadow for a bit. If we get it right, which generally we do, it's actually surprisingly funny."

Admitting that Two Gents is among the Bard's less mature theater pieces, Avery advises us to be on the lookout for precursors to the more advanced work. Julia thus becomes a rough sketch of the character who reaches full bloom as Juliet — or Rosalind in As You Like It. The conflicted Proteus becomes Shakespeare's dry run on the road to Iago in Othello or Iachimo in Cymbeline.

The Davidson residency will be Avery's American debut. Estimating that he'll be involved in 6-10 question-and-answer sessions connected with the 14 Shakespeare performances scheduled for the residency, Avery believes the company's eagerness to teach Shakespeare is as strong as the students' and the Davidson community's desire to learn.

"In England," he explains, "education is a strong part of what we do, but here there's more of it. Quite a lot of the company are actually very geared to the education. We not only present Shakespeare in an accessible way, but it's also very important to talk to the audiences. Because some people come up and say, 'Oh, I didn't understand it.' And in fact they did. It's just allowing people to have the confidence to realize that Shakespeare is accessible."

A key reason why the 2005 residency is such a quantum leap forward is that Davidson president Robert Vagt and RSC closed on the four-year commitment back in 2003, giving it ample time to happen in all its splendor. Cynthia Lewis, the Shakespearean scholar who holds the Dana Professorship of English at Davidson, has played a key role in both the 2002 and the current RSC visits to the campus. She gives a lot of credit to Theatre Department chairman Anne Marie Costa for spearheading the "Play On!" Symposium.

Pulling all of Lewis & Costa's ideas together was Bethany Prestigiacomo, brought on board last summer as Davidson's director of artist residency programs. That's not to ignore the fact that RSC is by no means a newcomer to America — or to residencies at American universities. In recent years, RSC's expeditions to American campuses have been limited to Davidson College and the University of Michigan.

"I can also tell you that they see the residency at Davidson as completely different from what they've done at U of M," says Lewis. "Their outreach at a place like U of M is going to be much more concentrated in just a few departments and just a few fields. When they come to a liberal arts college in a small community, they're going to hit the whole student body whose ethos is much more interdisciplinary. They're also going to hit the whole community. During the two-week residency, it will be the exception that somebody who lives in Davidson won't be coming to the plays."

Sounds like an ethos to emulate.

For more information on the residency, visit www.davidson.edu/shakespeare. To order tickets for the performances, call 704-894-2135, or go online to www.davidson.edu/tickets.

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