It's time to brush up on your Shakespeare. Again.
More performers associated with the Bard's plays serve as guides as “Shakespeare Uncovered” starts its third and final PBS season Friday. The first night offers two Oscar winners: Helen Hunt (“As Good as It Gets”) talking about “Much Ado About Nothing,” followed by F. Murray Abraham (“Amadeus”) discussing “The Merchant of Venice.” The subsequent two weeks showcase “Measure for Measure” (hosted by Romola Garai), “Julius Caesar” (Brian Cox), “The Winter's Tale” (Simon Russell Beale) and “Richard III” (Antony Sher).
Stage and screen veteran Abraham has much experience playing Shylock – who demands a pound of flesh for money lent – in “The Merchant of Venice” Off-Broadway, in a touring production, and in a Royal Shakespeare Company staging in England. Deeming “Shakespeare Uncovered's” concept “remarkable,” the lively, friendly Abraham says, “It's wonderful to be linked (through it) with so many actors I really like and respect. That's really a big plus. It's like being part of a tight little club.”
With the PBS program taking him to locations where “The Merchant of Venice” initially was done (including London's Globe Theatre), Abraham reflects of Shylock, “What a great role. I've done some good work, along with some stuff I'm not too proud of, and I think this one is my absolute favorite. I carry a banner for American(-produced) Shakespeare, and this is a terrific confirmation of how I feel ... that Shakespeare really is universal. He's not owned by any one country or any accent.
“At Stratford-on-Avon, they did all the works of Shakespeare in one year,” recalls Abraham, “and we were invited to do 'The Merchant of Venice.' As good as we were – and it was a good, good production – it really was elevated when we got there in the Swan Theatre, a couple of blocks from where Shakespeare was born. It absolutely made a big difference in the show, and they were queued up into the street, waiting for cancellations (of reservations). It was just thrilling!”
Abraham is well-versed in William Shakespeare's canon, having also starred in “Macbeth,” “King Lear” and 'Twelfth Night.” He credits his Academy Award as classical composer Antonio Salieri with “really opening the doors” to such opportunities. “I'm a very dedicated actor and I work hard, but I'm also lucky,” he notes. “Let's not forget that aspect of our lives.”
In fact, Abraham is exploring revisiting “King Lear” with director Danya Taymor. “She wants to do it in a very particular way,” he reports, “and I think that when we get it together, it will be at The Public (New York's Public Theater).”