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Baltimore Shakespeare Factory offers 'Merchant of Venice' in the Bard's accent

The language of William Shakespeare is just about universally recognized for its expressive richness, but exactly how he heard it articulated on the stage, the way it sounded, is much less understood. During the past decade, though, an effort to reproduce the authentic tone of the Bard has been gaining traction.

That effort has just reached the mid-Atlantic for the first time, thanks to Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's staging of "The Merchant of Venice" in what is termed Original Pronunciation — OP for short. That's to distinguish it from Received Pronunciation (RP), widely thought of as the quintessential English accent, but developed long after Shakespeare produced his masterworks.

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Helping to guide the Baltimore troupe through what's believed to be the first OP "Merchant" in 400 years, give or take, is British actor, author and producer Ben Crystal. He played the title role in the first OP "Hamlet," given by the Nevada Repertory Company in 2011.

"We wouldn't perform Tennessee Williams in Received Pronunciation," Crystal says. "It would sound odd — in the wrong rhythm, the wrong harmonics. [Using Original Pronunciation] in Shakespeare seems to be the right harmonics, releasing something in the plays we've been missing."

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Puns and rhymes, for example.

Ordinarily, we wouldn't rhyme "love" with "trove," but Shakespeare and his contemporaries did, according to research carried out by Crystal and his father, David Crystal. The senior Crystal, whose many books include the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, coached the cast for OP productions given for the first time at the re-created Globe Theatre in London 10 years ago.

Chris Cotterman, who plays the role of Bassanio in Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's "Merchant," notes that the word "voice" sounds like "vice" in OP. So a passage for Bassanio that includes the words "voice," "vice" and "virtue" can generate a pun that would otherwise pass unnoticed in RP.

Restoring the way people spoke in Elizabethan times can alter some of our perceptions about Shakespeare's words.

"We might lose some of the poetic grandeur we are used to from the declamatory style of the past 100 years," Ben Crystal says, "but I'm glad we're losing that. Shakespeare never stopped trying to make his dialogue sound natural."

The actors at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory happily embrace that naturalness. Like a lot of American companies, this one routinely avoids the John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier school of RP anyway.

"So I think people here are more open to OP," Cotterman says. "It's interesting how liberating it is. It's a deeper sound. It puts you in a different mindset and changes the way you move, the way you hold your body. It's earthy, not fancy. It makes the text more vital and maybe opens you up more to some of the nuances in the text."

The OP accent should not be confused with the more archaic Old English of Chaucer or "Beowulf" — "We'd never understand that," Cotterman says. This way of speaking isn't necessarily foreign to our ears at all.

"Very few people have a relation to a 400-year-old accent," Crystal says, "but I'll hear people after an original pronunciation performance say, 'They speak a bit like that where I come form.' And when I demonstrate in schools how the word 'mercy' is pronounced 'marcy,' they'll say it sounds like 'Pirates of the Caribbean.'"

Crystal likens the OP movement to attempts to re-create the physical environment of theaters where Shakespeare's plays were first performed. No one questions those efforts to bring back the Globe.

"We will never truly know the height of the Globe stage," he says, "but we do know enough to know that that rhymes should really rhyme. You don't lose comprehension and intelligibility with original pronunciation. It can reveal more of these great works to us. It can take us a step closer to Shakespeare, rather than dragging him to us."

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If you go

"The Merchant of Venice" opens Friday and runs through April 25 at Great Hall Theatre at St. Mary's, 3900 Roland Ave. Tickets are $15 to $20. There will be a May 8 performance at Boordy Vineyards, 12820 Long Green Pike; $25. Go to shakespearefactory.org.

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