Book of the Bard

Shakespeare’s First Folio is here in Tucson, and the Arizona Repertory Theatre is presenting two of its plays

It may not be the Gutenberg Bible, but to those who are dedicated fans of English literature and theater, the book in residence here now at the Arizona State Museum holds a similar kind of import and even majesty.

For the last few weeks, Tucson has been a rather Shakespeare-crazed community. The cause of the craze is Shakespeare's First Folio, one of only 233 First Folios known to exist, which is on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The Folger Library is one of the world's most respected repository of all things Shakespeare. It also is home to a theater in which, not only Shakespeare's plays are produced, but those of others as well. To commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the Bard's death, the Library decided to allow a First Folio (there are 82 housed at the Folger) to hit the road, settling for a brief period in each state—but only in one city in each state. They chose Tucson to cradle this treasure in Arizona.

While the term isn't commonly used today, Shakespeare fanatics know that a folio is simply a book. It's a big book, to be sure, made by folding large sheets of paper only once, the typeface set and printed and bound manually. According to the many fascinating facts found on the university's website, the folio format was usually reserved for royal, religious or referential documents. In addition, plays were not considered literature at the time, so this was the first book ever published in England devoted exclusively to plays.

This folio consists of a collection of 36 of Shakespeare's plays, 18 of which had never been printed before. It is entirely likely that were it not for the First Folio, those plays might have been lost to us, or at least as exactly as Shakespeare had actually written them. That would mean that we might never have had such plays as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, As You Like it, The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew.

And, that's a big deal.

According to university organizers Jane Prescott-Smith and Lisa Falk, there were numerous groups and organizations that helped plan and coordinate an impressive variety of events as a larger constellation of the folio's visit.

It was this widespread participation, including the fact that it could be a feature of the Tucson Festival of Books, that helped influence the Folger's decision. This cooperation has resulted in the First Folio's sojourn here being a multi-faceted experience. However, it's the book itself that has been the star around which these activities have orbited.

It was only right, then, that the UA's School of Theatre, Film and Television would contribute to the proposal. They suggested producing a couple of Shakespeare's plays in repertory, and they are currently featuring productions of The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest, which will run in alternating rotation through April 3.

Faculty member Brent Gibbs is directing both of these plays. The Comedy of Errors opened last week, and The Tempest, that oft-produced play of shipwreck, spirits, power and revenge, opened March 9.

They are not exactly what one might expect for a pairing, but Gibbs explains the selections showcase a bit of Shakespeare and the Folio overall.

"We wanted to concentrate on what was in danger of being lost if the Folio hadn't been published," Gibbs says. "They are also plays, which were written at the beginning of his career as a playwright [Comedy of Errors] and at the end of his career. You also get into the logistics of [doing shows in repertory], and they are two of his shortest plays."

The cast of the two plays consists of the same actors, except that in The Tempest, faculty member Kevin Black will be added to play Prospero.

Gibbs, who saw another First Folio at the Globe Theatre in London last year, muses about seeing it for the first time.

"There's just something about seeing the book from which it all sprung," he says. "You look at the book, and in it's simplest form, there's nothing really remarkable except that it's 400 years old. But to know what it contains, to know what it has given birth to—it's amazing to think of the influence it's had. It's a cornerstone of our culture.

"We wanted to provide people a chance to go and see the artifact itself and then come and see that it is still a living, breathing thing," Gibbs says.

Certainly the humor that Gibbs and company have mined from The Comedy of Errors is welcome in all its free-spirited, breath-taking high jinks. The story about two sets of twins that find themselves in a twisted mess of mistaken identities is a raucous and sometimes raunchy display of well-played goofiness. The students here have fully committed to Gibbs' frenetic pacing, and the action gets so fast and furious that, at times, we actually have a bit of concern for their safety. That's about the biggest complaint to be registered.

To welcome visitors to the Folio exhibit itself, the planners put together a group of what they call "Folio greeters." It's their job to introduce visitors and answer questions about Shakespeare and the culture of the time. Betsy Labiner, a graduate student working toward a PhD. in early modern theater, is one of those greeters.

"People can be put off by the language and what they perceive are huge differences between our world and Shakespeare's," she says. "But the stories are absolutely as emotionally powerful and interestingly relevant as they were 400 years ago. This book is a tangible way to visualize exactly how far through time these plays have travelled.

"The presence of the book enables people to internalize the fact that through many generations, many different people are coming to this material and finding something worth performing and worth watching," Labiner says. "It's not just that we have this old book, which is a material artifact. It represents so much more. It offers endless options, truly."