In a region whose 40-plus professional theaters pride themselves on producing new work - one in every four of the plays they stage here is a world premiere - and whose late-summer festival of fringy shows often skirts the edge and maybe jumps over it, good old William Shakespeare has had a great season.
The writer of so many familiar phrases may have departed "this mortal coil" (Hamlet) 392 years ago, and, yes, many a new play has come and gone as he's lain "dead as a doornail" (Henry VI, Part 2). But for plenty of directors, actors, and stage designers hereabouts, a successful production of Shakespeare's work remains the "be-all and the end-all" (Macbeth) of their art and craft.
"Shakespeare can hold your interest better than anybody," says Charles McMahon, artistic director of Center City's Lantern Theater.
He was discussing how the playwright galvanizes him as a director (he staged Lantern's Henry IV, Part 1 in the spring), but he could have been speaking of entire theater companies - and, apparently, audiences.
As the master might have coined it were he writing today: Shakespeare still rocks. So much so that in the season now ending, the region's theaters easily will have spent more than $2 million on productions of his plays.
In the 2008-09 season, far fewer companies gave the thumbs up on whether Shakespeare was to be or not to be staged: Six professional companies mounted a total of seven productions, a more typical number. So what happened to "stir, stir, stir!" (Romeo and Juliet) things up in 2009-10?
There's no apparent single reason. Some companies choose frequently from the 37 comedies, romances, tragedies, and histories that Shakespeare wrote for the stage, and he serves as the main mission of three companies: the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, which performs on Sansom Street; Shakespeare in Clark Park, whose annual show begins July 28 with the often-done A Midsummer Night's Dream; and the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in Center Valley, near Quakertown, where The Merry Wives of Windsor will begin Wednesday and Romeo and Juliet on July 21.
Three companies - the Arden, the Lantern, and People's Light & Theatre near Malvern - produce Shakespeare every few years, and this season those stars in heaven, which the Bard oft cites, aligned: All three happened to stage his work. Other companies just happened to put him on their schedules.
Shakespeare also enjoyed a season outside the traditional theater this year, when the Pennsylvania Ballet danced Romeo and Juliet at the Academy of Music and Curtis Opera Theatre performed Samuel Barber's seldom-seen adaptation of the Bard's Antony and Cleopatra at the Kimmel Center.
Curiously, he has not been produced in 24 seasons on the stage of his Philadelphia premiere: The Walnut Street Theatre presented The Winter's Tale on Feb. 3, 1812, and, by all accounts, took the same sort of liberties with the Bard that make him so ever-changing and often fresh today. In the 1980s, the Walnut's management found that three times the usual number of subscribers failed to show up when the theater did Shakespeare, so he was banished.
No clearinghouse exists to warn off one theater from doing the same work or works by a playwright as another - except when the companies seek rights. And with Shakespeare, that's not a problem. No one has to secure rights to his work, because there's no one to claim ownership and, thus, no royalties to pay.
So that's probably a factor in his popularity when financial coffers are subject to, you might say, the slings and arrows of a surely outrageous fortune. You do Shakespeare, you do him for free.
But hold on. "There are no royalties, but these are large-cast plays, and you have to do them with the budget you have. And you can do them on bare-bones sets, I guess, but we don't," says Grace E. Grillet, managing director of People's Light & Theatre, producer of this season's King Lear.
Plus, the costume costs can be phenomenal, and so can the simple cost in time: Shakespeare wrote at length, and sometimes with a convolution unacceptable in theater nowadays, so directors may spend a good deal of effort sculpting him. (He's not around to complain or sue about editing.)
But Shakespeare's puttylike attractiveness to directors and actors is also what makes his work so fascinating and why theater companies love tackling him: The plays lend themselves to vast differences in interpretation.
"There are no stage directions and no clear guidelines about how characters are supposed to react or emote," says Shakespeare specialist Annalisa Castaldo, an associate professor at Widener University and the textual consultant to the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. " 'They fight. He dies. Exit.' And that's about it."
One thing's for sure: Announce you're doing Shakespeare, and theater artists will start lining up.
"The depth in his writing and the many layers he provides" attract actors, says Ken Jordan, assistant production manager at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre.
Says Evan Jonigkeit, the Arden's recent Romeo, calling in from Hartford, Conn., on tour with Kathleen Turner in the new play High: "It's the highest form of drama, some of the most craftful and intelligent writing you can come across."
And "it's a gigantic challenge and a terrific opportunity to test yourself and try to embrace those big ideas and make the language come alive," says Peter Pryor, Falstaff in Lantern's show this season - on his way to Wisconsin on a Shakespeare workshop fellowship. He is representing Philadelphia's Wilma Theater, which in September will open the season with its first-ever Shakespeare, Macbeth.
Most theaters add performances when Shakespeare's playing because he's an obvious draw for schools. But that doesn't mean added income; actors must be paid for extra work, and huge group-sale student audiences may average $15 a ticket, not the usual $30 or more. At People's Light, many schools go for free, thanks to contributions the company seeks.
"You don't do Shakespeare because you make a lot of money," says Amy L. Murphy, managing director of the Arden, where Romeo and Juliet drew more than 16,000 people in 54 performances and, with all that, grossed less than the recently ended Stephen Sondheim musical, Sunday in the Park With George.
"I can't really say Shakespeare is a cash driver," Murphy says. "It's a people driver" - a means of filling seats and lifting spirits.
"What revels are in hand?" Shakespeare asks in A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?"
He should know.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or email@example.com.