Shakespearean superstars return to Madison to welcome first folio

Two contemporary Shakespearean superstars — actors whose devotion to the Bard of Avon has defined both their lives and their careers — will be returning to Madison this month in conjunction with the opening of First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare. That exhibition stars a first-edition copy of the 1623 volume that is the original compendium of Shakespeare’s works.

Though not for as long as the folio, the acting pair of Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso has made its own history, contributing significantly to the frequency of live Shakespeare performances in south-central Wisconsin for the past 36 years.

They return to Madison to stage the world-premiere performance of their play The Pleasure of His Company: Our 40 Year Love Affair with William Shakespeare on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theatre on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The collection of famous Shakespearean scenes, personal reminisces and history is the married couple’s love letter to history’s most influential playwright.

UW had originally asked Kim and Occhiogrosso to perform Then Came Each Actor, the pair’s previous stage play about actors throughout the centuries who made their careers performing Shakespeare. However, the pair knew they wanted to do something special for the occasion and created an entirely new work, Kim says.

“The play is an expression of our love for this man and his work and how it has shaped our careers and our lives,” Kim says. “Our lives have been spent in the pleasure of his company — quite literally.”

The performance, sponsored by the UW Arts Institute and the Wisconsin Union Directorate, will serve to welcome the First Folio, which will be on display at UW-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art Nov. 3 through Dec. 11. Both events help recognize 2016 as the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

To the actors, the First Folio has even greater value than merely as a historical volume, Occhiogrosso explains.

“Over the centuries, Shakespeare’s works were ‘grammaticized’ by scholars who edited texts for the reader. Through our analysis of punctuation, capitalization, and unique spellings in the original texts, we have discovered that the First Folio provides clues to stimulate the actor’s imagination and encourages a more spontaneous performance of Shakespeare’s plays,” Occhiogrosso says. “I have never seen any actor work with the First Folio that wasn’t overwhelmed by the discovery of this new insight into Shakespeare’s texts and its powerful impact on audiences.”

Shakespeare as guiding light and binding tie

Kim was exposed to the Bard’s work in his native Honolulu.

“I knew since age 11 that live theater was where I wanted to be,” Kim says. “At age 17, I saw both Hamlet and Oedipus Rex and knew that those were the kind of works I wanted to do.”

“Theater is more than a mere commodity,” Kim continues. “When done correctly, it can have a powerful impact on the actors and audience. If I can communicate truly what the playwright has in mind, the effect can be profound.”

Kim made his stage debut in a production of Macbeth, and then appeared in a University of Hawaii production of King Lear. The theater department stressed Western classical theater along with maintaining a foundation in kabuki, the traditional Japanese dance-drama.

Occhiogrosso’s first exposure to Shakespeare was through a production of Macbeth in her native New York. In her case, the moment of revelation was truly a visceral one.

“I was in sixth grade and the performance included actors running up and down the aisles,” Occhiogrosso recalls. “I reached out and touched Donalbain’s cape and knew from that moment this was something I wanted to be part of.”

Her passion continued through many more productions, as well as her pursuit of a theater degree at Hunter College. It was at Hunter that Occhiogrosso met Kim when he served as guest artist during her senior year. In fact, the pair appeared onstage together in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage.

“Randy and I sort of gravitated towards each other,” Occhiogrosso remembers. “One night he knocked on my dressing room door and said I was a wonderful actress. It was then that I knew I wanted to follow him around the earth.”

Building the Bard a home

From the start, the pair knew they were destined to start their own classical theater company to focus on the classics, with the works of Shakespeare at its hub. Their dissatisfaction with the stage, screen and television roles Kim was hired for added fuel to the fire.

In 1979, Kim and Occhiogrosso — joined by the late Charles J. Bright — conceived the theater in Washington, D.C. The three considered some 49 Midwestern locations before choosing APT’s current site on Golf Course Road in Spring Green. Its rural isolation, as well as the natural bowl of the hillside and its superior acoustics, attracted the playmakers.

“What we wanted to do in Spring Green was establish a center for training and presentation of the classics, with Shakespeare appearing every year,” Kim says. “Nothing would have pleased me more than a place where people could come and recreate and contemplates issues in the quiet.”

By 1991, the trio was gone, satisfied that they had done good work in Spring Green, but not in agreement with where the theater was headed. In their mind, classical theater classically performed lay at the root of everything.

‘The real thing’

At the center of classical theater, of course, is William Shakespeare in his most traditional form, and that is still something that drives Kim and Occhiogrosso no matter where their opportunities take them.

“For me Shakespeare speaks directly to the human soul, or at least he did to mine,” Kim says. “His insight into human behavior was absolutely penetrating and accurate. I think King Lear is his greatest masterpiece. It’s about the cruelties and kindnesses we show to one another and shows what love is all about.”

Occhiogrosso agrees: “It’s the way he can hold that mirror up to human nature and let the audiences see themselves within human experience. He is much broader than a single concept, and it will be up to audience members how they decide to live their lives as they leave the theater.”

Kim has gone on to a variety of roles, classical and not — on Broadway, in major motion pictures and on television. In every role, he says, he taps into his Shakespearean training, the value of which has never left him.

“I remember something that Laurence Fishburne (who appeared with Kim in The Matrix Reloaded) once said about Randy,” Occhiogrosso says. “He said that, ‘Randy studied Shakespeare, and that makes him the real thing.’ The rest of us, he added, are just bullshit.”

On Stage

The Pleasure of His Company: Our 40 Year Love Affair with William Shakespeare featuring Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso takes the Shannon Hall stage in the Wisconsin Union Theatre, 800 Langdon St. on the UW-Madison campus Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. Tickets are free, but seats must be reserved through the Union Theatre box office at 608-265-ARTS (2787).

On Display

First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare will be on display Nov. 3–Dec. 11 at the Leslie and Johanna Garfield Galleries of the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave., on the UW-Madison campus. It is the Folio’s only Wisconsin appearance.

Concurrent with First Folio will be Presenting Shakespeare: Posters from Around the World, a curated exhibit of theater posters used to promote Shakespeare’s plays worldwide. The posters will be on display in the Chazen’s Pleasant T. Rowland Galleries Oct. 14–Dec. 11.

Both Chazen exhibits are free and open to the public.

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