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Bard Target

Marc Horwitz sets his sights on Shakepeare's greatest hits

Just Mark Horowitz, the bard, and thou.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 3/18/2009

Ages Of Man

By William Shakespeare, adapted by John Gielgud

At the Performance Workshop Theatre through April 11

In 1958, John Gielgud brought his one-man show, Ages of Man, to Goucher College. The legendary British actor had assembled the evening of Shakespearean monologues and sonnets himself and had even written the brief narrations that stitched the pieces together so he could tour the world without sets or casts; the show won a 1959 Tony Award for its Broadway run, a 1966 Emmy Award for its CBS broadcast, and a 1979 Grammy Award for its audio recording. You can watch Gielgud delivering the prologue from Henry V as part of Ages of Man on You Tube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v..

If Gielgud was the world's greatest Shakespearean actor during the '50s, '60s and '70s, Marc Horwitz is surely Maryland's best Shakespearean actor today, and he has brought Ages of Man back to Maryland for a revival at the Performance Workshop Theatre. Dressed simply in a black vest over a white shirt, with no set or props but an oriental rug, a lectern, and an armchair, Horwitz runs through the Bard's greatest hits. One moment he's Romeo, gaga with love after laying eyes on Juliet for the first time; the next moment he's King Leontes, snarling irrationally that his wife is having an affair with his best friend.

Whether it's an evening of operatic arias, an Oscar-night montage of movie clips, or a disco medley of pop-music choruses, this omnibus approach to art is inherently flawed. On the one hand, by picking out the highlights, the anthologizer is presumably skimming off the cream. On the other hand, Shakespeare's best scenes depend on everything else that's gone before--and that's still to come--to provide the dramatic context for those scenes. Presented in isolation, those same monologues may jar happy memories, may delight with rich language, or may impress with an actor's skill, but they just don't have the same emotional impact as an actual Shakespeare play.

So it is in the small basement room at the Performance Workshop Theatre. The writing is marvelous, of course, and Horwitz's skill is admirable, but just as we're getting to know each character, the monologue is over and it's on to the next character. For this reason, the show's few sonnets actually afford the most satisfying moments, for these 14-line poems are meant to be self-contained.

When Horwitz recites the sonnet "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day," he conquers one of the greatest challenges in acting. He makes every syllable of the Elizabethan English distinct and clear, but he never seems to strain for enunciation. In fact, he has such a buttery tone that each word seems to be swimming in a sauté pan. When Horwitz tells his lover that she shall not "lose possession of that fair thou ow'st/ Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade," he untangles the knotty syntax and makes it sound like a conversational valentine. If we still lived in a radio age, Horwitz would probably be a major star, for his voice is that intoxicating.

He's less consistent with his body language. Sometimes, especially when he's contemplating death, his own or an enemy's, he seems wonderfully natural. At other times, especially when his character is delivering a public speech, his gestures can seem a bit stiff.

As a result, the show's best moments come in the death-haunted third act. As the title implies, Ages of Man is loosely organized into three acts labeled "Youth," "Manhood," and "Age." When Horwitz becomes the older Henry IV, complaining that "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" and wistfully envying the peasants who sleep soundly in their "smoky cribs," the actor seems to stare longingly out a castle window to an alternate life he'll never know. When he becomes Hamlet contemplating suicide, the performer writhes inside the armchair as if trying to crawl out of his own skin. And when he becomes King Lear mourning his dead daughter Cordelia, Horwitz collapses over the lectern, stifling his sobs, his eyes glistening in the houselights.

It's at moments like these that Ages of Man overcomes its dubious premise. These scenes may be torn out of their necessary context, but to hear such a skilled actor handle such rich writing is a pleasure not to be slighted.

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