You Look Like Someone Who Enjoys a Good Bourgeois Orgy

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Photograph by DeAgostini/Getty Images

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Photograph by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Shakespeare wrote some three dozen plays, and this season you can see at least 12 of them in New York. Loot turned to James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University, and Leonard Barkan, chairman of Princeton's department of comparative literature, for help with the hard choices.

Shapiro says there's no one must-see -- you've got to take price, audience and personal preference into account. On price, he cites Theatre for a New Audience as an affordable choice. On audience, he observes, "It's not just who you're seeing, it's who you're seeing it with." He recently attended a production of "Much Ado About Nothing" by the Public Theater's Mobile Shakespeare Unit at the Rikers Island jail complex. (The play will be on view for all in December). "It was as thrilling a theatrical performance as you can remember," he says. "And the actors were thrilled to have such an engaged and open audience."

As for personal preference: "If you respond to visuals, go to Julie Taymor's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' And if you respond to language, go to see Mark Rylance in 'Twelfth Night.' "

Scanning the list, Princeton's Barkan says he lights immediately on "Antony and Cleopatra." At times, he says, "I have felt that 'Antony and Cleopatra' is the greatest play of all." Plus, it's rarely performed. "It's one of those plays that are very difficult, because of the vastness of the scope and the expectations that the Cleopatra has to be the most seductive person who's ever lived."

But do we turn to academia for Apollonian rationality, or for Elizabethan cruelty?

Right!

Of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Barkan says, "For me it's a little obvious. Maybe Julie Taymor should do 'A Long Day's Journey Into Night,' where there's no flying anything, and people just talk."

On Frank Langella as King Lear, starting in January: "Lear is another unstageable plot whose greatness is kind of bigger than the theater. One is curious, with a slightly ghoulish view, how he could possibly conquer this beast."

On Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth, which opens in June: "Well. Haven't we seen enough of that?"

Ultimately, though, Barkan is happy there's so much to choose from.

"I view this army of Shakespeare as a kind of wonderful, bourgeois orgy," he says. "And who doesn't enjoy a bourgeois orgy? I hope everyone goes, and that Shakespeare emerges as the utterly vernacular, timeless voice that he is."

James Tarmy writes the Loot blog for Bloomberg.com's Good Life channel.

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