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Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s international programming initiative, the World’s Stage Series, brings to Chicago Michael Pennington’s Sweet William, a one-man show melding biography with performance of the life and works of Shakespeare for 20 performances only February 3-22, 2009 Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare.

Building on the facts that are known about Shakespeare’s life, and drawing on the plays themselves, Pennington creates a portrait of the man that he likens to “a letter to my best friend” in this tour de force performance. With only a chair and a red handkerchief on stage, Pennington goes in and out of characters, blending commentary and biography with performance of famous and lesser-known monologues.

As one of England’s foremost Shakespearean actors, Michael Pennington has spent over 20,000 hours of his life on stage performing the works of William Shakespeare.. He studied at Cambridge University before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964, launching his celebrated international as actor and director. In 1986, he and director Michael Bogdanov founded the English Shakespeare Company to present and promote the works of Shakespeare internationally, especially through large-scale touring shows of modern interpretations. The company’s inaugural production was the 23-hour The Wars of the Roses, an anthology of seven history plays that toured from 1986 to 1989, and played Chicago as part of the International Festival Theatre. In 1996 Pennington directed CST’s Joseph Jefferson Award-winning production of Twelfth Night. Pennington is the author of numerous books, including User’s Guides to Hamlet, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Michael’s lifelong dedication to the performance of Shakespeare and his work with Michael Bogdanov in creating the English Shakespeare Company was an inspiration to many,” says Artistic Director Barbara Gaines. “Our first invitation to Michael, over a decade ago, was to direct a production for us and indeed, many will remember a wonderful production of Twelfth Night. I am thoroughly delighted that on Michael Pennington’s return to Chicago he will grace our stage with his presence. His extraordinary talent, intelligence and unique relationship with Shakespeare will both illuminate and entertain.”

Pennington has criss-crossed the Atlantic bringing Sweet William to audiences throughout the United States and United Kingdom to critical acclaim. The Guardian raved that “Pennington embraces the infinite variety found in Shakespeare’s world,” describing the production as “Brilliant.” The Sunday Times wrote “Pennington has played most of the big parts and he knows what makes them tick,” and concludes, “This show is a gem.”

Chicagocritic.com, Tom Williams, 6th February 2009

As part of their World’s Stage Series, Chicago Shakespeare Theater bring back to Chicago British scholar/actor/director Michael Pennington performing his one-man show, Sweet William. This captivating 80 minute show is part narrative lecture, part life story and part performance of some of The Bard’s famous speeches and character sketches. I learned a lot about Shakespeare the man, his times and his work as Pennington deftly navigates and performs his way through Shakespeare’s life and themes.

Building on the known facts and theories, Pennington draws on his life-long study and over 20,000 hours on stage doing Shakespeare's plays to create a portrait of the man he likens to a “letter to my best friend.” Michael Pennington is mesmerizing in this breathtaking tribute to a genius. Pennington’s charm and easy manner is enticing and alluring. His love for Shakespeare is glowing and infectious. Using only a chair and a red handkerchief on stage, Pennington goes in and out of characters as he blends commentary, history and biographical information to present a vivid and thoughtful sketch of Shakespeare.

Pennington is a scholar, actor and intellectual thinker whose love, respect and honest presentation of all things Shakespeare is a joy to behold. He presents The Bard as a human being, foibles and all; as a practical stage craftsman; and a commercial producer of plays/ he also aptly presents Shakespeare’s unique take on love, women, heroes and the comic low-life colorful characters he used to balance out his plays. I learned that Shakespeare used soliloquies as truthful asides spoken directly to the audience as well as in-depth character clues. Pennington uses many examples from both well-known and lesser -known monologues to show Shakespeare’s progression as a playwright. This fast paced 80 minutes was a most  engaging and sincerely entertaining evening of story telling and lecture that I’ve spent in years! Don’t miss this treasure.

Chicago Sunday Times, 6th February 2009, Hedy Weiss

More than two decades ago, a tireless, exceedingly handsome fortysomething British actor by the name of Michael Pennington arrived here with the English Shakespeare Company as part of the International Theater Festival of Chicago. He and his fellow actors proceeded to make their way through a modern-dress staging of six history plays at the Auditorium Theater - a marathon event that generated enormous excitement. All those who took that journey with him and director Michael Bogdanov’s troupe still remember the crazy exhilaration of the undertaking.

Now Pennington has returned to this city, for which he retains great affection, with his one-man show Sweet William. And clearly he remains as obsessed with William Shakespeare as ever - an obsession that first took hold when he was 11 and saw a production of Macbeth.

In Sweet William which opened Wednesday night in the intimate confines of Chicago Shakespeare’s Upstairs theater - on a stage with nothing but a spotlight and a handsome gothic chair to suggest a modest throne - Pennington weaves a lovely, often revelatory tapestry that draws on the life and times and writings of Shakespeare. Along the way, he injects his own particular insights into the man, gained from years of performing his characters, and from musing on the many hidden meanings and references to be found in his plays.

The actor also gives us many lovely, wide-ranging snapshots from Shakespeare’s canon (including bits of the sonnets), with especially touching portrayals of several of Shakespeare’s child characters and women.

It is the intriguingly detailed and insightful chronicle of the world through which Shakespeare walked that in many ways is the most fascinating aspect of this two-hour, two-act show - a production that is never didactic, but seems to flow in much the same way as Shakespeare’s storytelling. Pennington clearly has learned from the master.

The actor reminds us that relatively little is known about Shakespeare himself, though much is recorded about the Elizabethan age and the reign of King James  during which the playwright’s London career thrived. So Pennington leads us through the actor-writer’s life, hypothesizing as necessary. Shakespeare’s birth, in 1564, occurred during a period of the plague. His marriage to Anne Hathaway at 18 was followed by the birth of a daughter and then fraternal twins (recall the plays populated by such twined siblings). His periods of ‘disappearance’ as a young man might have been connected to the fact that he was Catholic in England at a time when that could be dangerous, but they also might have simply been times when he worked as part of a troupe of touring actors (a life Pennington, too, knows well).

We get a vivid picture of the London that Shakespeare encountered when he arrived there in his late 20s and began writing for the theater - the diversity, the crowds, the tensions of the city, even its smells. Pennington expertly conjures Shakespeare’s distinctive ability to capture the speech of both high society (royalty and courtiers) and low (the common laborers), and everything in between. And he is at his best when considering Shakespeare’s final years, and giving us the most exquisite rendering of the country justice, Robert Shallow, recounting his mischievous salad days despite an awareness of age and mortality.

Pennington never even raises the theory that Shakespeare’s plays might have been penned by someone else. But he does leave us to contemplate the enduring mystery of how one man could have possessed such genius. What more can you ask?

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Nwi.com, Philip Potempa, 9th February 2009

I had always wanted to see actor Maurice Evans perform one of Williams Shakespeare’s classics on stage.


After last week, now I feel I have gotten my wish, at least in many ways in regard to an equally unsurpassed talent.

One of England’s foremost Shakespearean actors, Michael Pennington, is currently starring in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s World Stage Series presentation of Sweet William, Pennington’s one-man salute to Shakespeare’s life and work. The production runs through Feb 22.

The two-hour show had me on the edge of my seat. Pennington slips in and out of some of the most famous verses from varied works of The Bard, while carefully and seamlessly weaving the tale of the personal life and journey of the world’s greatest writer.

Framed by two acts and one 10-minute intermission, Pennington masterfully captivates his audiences in the intimate setting while going in and out of characters. He blends commentary and biography with performances of both famous and lesser-known dialogues.

Pennington, who reminds me so much of the style and elegant class that Evans also displayed, co-founded the English Shakespeare Company in 1986 with director Michael Bogdanov.

And, just like Evans, Pennington, 65, also had enjoyed his own moments of ‘pop culture’ crossover, such as starring as Death Star Commander Moff Jerjerrod in the ‘Star Wars’ movie series.

Sweet William is a performance that will be enjoyed by any audience member, from age 10 and older.

It invites theatergoers to witness and understand the world that surrounded the life of Shakespeare from his birth to his death - all neatly served up with a clever and inviting style in two hours.

Lasplash.com, Steve Pasek, 6th February 2009

The wonder and the frustration of interpreting the context of Shakespeare’s work is the the myth is so large, and factual history so scarce, that his body of work has become iconic and the man himself a source of endless speculation. Unlike today’s film auteurs, who include ‘making of’ features on DVD releases explaining every scripting and production decision made, the Bard didn’t provide footnotes illuminating the source material or intent of every scene. Centuries of academic exploration have failed to settle many questions about his life and work, and it in this shadowy room that Michael Pennington’s Sweet William lives and breathes.

Sweet William derives its name from a hardy, weed-like perennial breed of dianthus, which has spread from northern Europe to the rest of the world with remarkable adaptability. It’s an apt metaphor, since, as Pennington notes, Shakespeare’s work has become so ubiquitous in the English-speaking world - second only to the Bible as a source of archetypes - “that we often quote him without knowing it”, making him “the great ventriloquist” of the human condition.

Pennington, a world-renowned Shakespearean actor and literary expert, revels in the ambiguities in the poetry and the life of the most renowned writer in the English language. Reeling off a two-hour monologue in two acts, he works at explicating the “whys” of Shakespeare much more than the “what”. He begins with anecdotes that express the magnificent power of a performance which he saw as a child that began his lifelong obsession, and compares this episode to a possibly apocryphal story of non-English speaker Hector Berlioz. It was Berlioz who reportedly cried at his first brush with Shakespeare plays - a presentation of Romeo and Juliet - and was so moved that he wrote several symphonies inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.

Rather than posit the inner life of the poet from the texts, he attempts to draw a portrait of the mysterious man via an intriguing technique. He starts with known facts about Shakespeare’s life, and draws reasonable lines to connect the dots between these points. With a few plausible assumptions about the path that he could have followed, Pennington imagines the emotions and experiences that could have served as Shakespeare’s source material.

Like a literary detective re-enacting the crime, he performs snippets of the plays, sonnets, and contemporary responses to Shakespeare’s work, simultaneously demonstrating the intricacy of the work as well as expanding on these clues to suggest the character of the author. In one humorous vignette, he imagines that the ‘missing’ years of Shakespeare’s teens were spent on the road with a traveling troupe of actors, wincing at the hollow prose on which he can certainly improve.

For theater geeks, Pennington includes technical discussion such as: Othello and Timon of Athens as political criticism of King James, the increasing innovation of the soliloquies, and thematic exegesis; and the gossip on Shakespeare’s possible bisexuality and the nefarious source of materials for the Globe Theater. The production’s strength, though, is his encyclopedic mastery of the mythological Shakespeare, and he invites us all to join his continuing investigation of a fascinating, inspiring, enigmatic body of work. Pennington includes personal anecdotes to express his fascination and wonder at the keen observation on human frailty, as well as progressive portrayals of women and the common man, which are the hallmarks of his hero’s work. Some of these, such as the fool who is wiser than the king, are now such conventions that they are cliché, while other, such as women who chafe against their limited social status, retain potency even today.

While Pennington notes that it is dangerous to make assumptions about authors based on the content of their work, he concludes that Shakespeare “is a man who never expressed a public opinion, yet his work is filled with arguments about what is important in life”. Those dramatic arguments, of course, are what makes for the best theater, and the works of  Shakespeare are so beautiful, so compelling, and informed with an uncanny feel for the human condition, that we are compelled to speculate on what sort of man could have created them.

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Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones, 6th February 2009

Sweet William, the one-man show by the noted English Shakespearean Michael Pennington contains some snatches of performance, copious amounts of  biography, less copious amounts of autobiography, a few anecdotes, some moralizing and a little humor. But it is, in essence, a lecture. With brief interjections of acting.

Albeit with less bombast and arrogance, Pennington’s retro, solo performance recall the days when well-spoken Englishmen would trek across the Atlantic )or Pacific) with their trunks and dispense cultural bona-fides to a rough-and-tumble New World crowd envious of Europeans apparently weaned on Shakespeare with their mother’s milk and who thus evince a superior understanding of the almighty Bard.

Although Pennington claims that Shakespeare permeated his soul at the age of eleven (and, as a fellow Manchester United supporter, I have no reason to question his claim), I’m not sure that stereotypical transatlantic divide - Shakespeare versus superheroes, say - still applies. It was always overstated for the purposes of English profit.

Still, there is no shame in delivering a lecture in a theater about, inarguably, the greatest man of the theater who ever lived. Especially when the lecturer really knows his stuff, as does Pennington (better known as the co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company, which made several appearances in Chicago in the 1990s).

His hagiography is organized around the biography of the Stratford man (clearly, Pennington has no truck with the structuralists or those who claim the Shakespearean canon was actually written by Christopher Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford). And assuming you buy the notion that the life of a writer is the most useful informant of his work - which I am not sure I do - it’s a very interesting couple of hours for anyone with a particular interest in the life and works of Shakespeare.

If you have a young student at home studying Shakespeare (or whom you wish studied Shakespeare), you should think about bringing them to the Nave Pier, for Pennington not only provides a useful and crystal-clear introduction to the penumbra of his life and times, but he also conveys a great deal of personal passion for Shakespeare’s insights into humanity. He speaks with the knowledge and authority of one who has lived his entire professional life in and around Shakespeare’s works.

He is also an unapologetic fan.at one point, Pennington claims that other playwrights like Marlowe “couldn’t keep up,” which strikes me as a bit unfair to Marlowe, who had the misfortune to be murdered before he could do all that much.

Still, there’s a lot of rich insight here. He explains the thin biography by saying that Shakespeare’s life “was a sustained act of self-effacement.” Pennington attacks productions that produce Shakespeare with “a lack of politics.” “Everything in Shakespeare,” he argues, “is an argument.”

He suggests that a change in boss from Elizabeth to James had a huge impact on the plays. And he implies that the mature Old Will was in grave danger of being co-opted by those who indirectly authorized his paycheck (and permitted his head to remain on his shoulders).

“Never good for an artist,” Pennington says, shaking his own well-attached noggin.

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Copley News Service, Dan Zeff, 5th February 2009

Michael Pennington is giving a master class in Shakespeare at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It’s an event not to be missed by anyone with an interest in the Bard, which is to say, all serious theatergoers.

Pennington has been one of England’s leading classical actors for a generation, a performer and director familiar to CST audiences from Chicago appearances with his English Shakespeare Company. He calls his one-man show Sweet William, a distillation of more than half a century of watching, studying, and performing Shakespeare.

Pennington estimates he’s spent 20,000 hours in Shakespeare plays on world stages, and that doesn’t include rehearsals, personal reading, and authoring several books on the dramas and comedies. Clearly the man’s credentials are in order when it comes to an informed discussion of Shakespeare’s life and works.

Pennington presents his show as a personal verbal essay. He performs on a bare stage, the only prop being a throne-like wooden chair (a red handkerchief is also used to great effect in one scene). Pennington dresses casually in slacks and a sports shirt. The minimalist presentation fits perfectly in the CST’s intimate Upstairs Theater, where the two-hour production assumes the form of an informal living room chat.

Pennington dates his love of Shakespeare back to his first exposure to the playwright at the age of 11 when his parents took him to see Macbeth. It was love at first sight (and hearing) and the springboard to a distinguished theater career.

The actor organizes Sweet William as a chronological trip through Shakespeare’s life from his birth in Stratford to his theater years in London and then his retirement and death back in Stratford. Along the way Pennington injects asides and anecdotes as well as swatches from the plays and sonnets to illustrate particular points.

Unlike some one-man shows devoted to Shakespeare, Sweet William is not a survey of the playwright’s greatest hits (all those famous soliloquies that practically invite the audience to recite along with the actor). Pennington mines the richer of the lesser known plays such as Timon of Athens, A Winter’s Tale, Henry IV, Part 3, and Troilus and Cressida. When he does explore the better-known works, he selects telling but less familiar passages to illuminate his thoughts.

Pennington has spent a lifetime steeping himself in Shakespeare’s life and times and he isn’t afraid to speculate where the factual record is sparse or nonexistent. He speaks persuasively about how the man might have spent the so-called ‘lost years’ from 1585 to 1592. He analyzes how the social and cultural scene in Elizabethan London impacted on Shakespeare’s writing and how the ascension of James I, with his hedonistic court, turned Shakespeare’s plays darker and more cynical.

Sweet William may be an extended lecture but it avoids the taint of an academic exercise through Pennington’s ingratiating stage presence and his canny selection of material that makes Shakespeare’s life and works come alive with fresh information and stimulating insights. It should be stressed that Sweet William caters to spectators who know and care about Shakespeare, but that will be the profile of the typical CST audience. It’s doubtful that any patrons will stumble into the Upstairs Theater expecting a performance of Xanadu.

The bottom line is that Pennington delivers an adult show in the best sense of that abused term. He’s great company, droll and knowledgeable and gently opinionated. A most entertaining and literate evening.

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Time Out, Chicago, John Beer, 11th February 2009

The prospect of a one-man show on Shakespeare’s life and work may fill one with trepidation, conjuring dread specters of eighth-grade assemblies. The rather saccharine title doesn’t help Sweet Williams’s cause either. But Royal Shakespeare Company veteran and English Shakespeare Company founder Pennington delivers a captivating evening, wedding the spirits of Chicago Humanities Festival and Inside the Actors Studio, with generous dollops of Bardic performance along the way. Pennington cannily chooses the larger part of his selection from lesser-known plays: his Richard III soliloquy, for instance comes not from the eponymous history but from the relatively obscure Henry VI, Part III, from which he also draws the chilling confrontation between the diabolical Margaret and York. ,easure and Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and Timon of Athens all enjoy rare moments in the sun, studding the piece with revelations even for veteran Globe-watchers.

Pennington ‘s quick-change act impresses as he drops suddenly in and out of character, and several of his sketches are deeply affecting, his portrayal of Justices Shallow and Silence from Henry IV, Part II perhaps most so. But the real fascination of Sweet William lies in its demonstration that a fine Shakespearean actor must also be a kind of practical critic. Pennington tosses out an array of keenly perceptive insights into the linguistic microstructure and argumentative underpinnings of the drama. He doesn’t always forswear the temptation to drop into the kind of fulsome Bardolatry recently trademarked by Harold Bloom. It’s hard to imagine, though, a more persuasive case being made for the value of devoting one’s life to this writer and his works.

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