"One incredible advance the world has made in the last couple of years," points out AASU drama professor Peter Mellen, "is No Fear Shakespeare."
Indeed, the SparkNotes book series is now the Bard Bible for contemporary young theater students who find it initially tricky to navigate the waters of Shakespeare's thickly poetic Elizabethan dialogue.
"On the left hand side, they give you the play as Shakespeare wrote it," Mellen explains. "On the right hand side, someone has translated it into standard American English. And they just go page by page.
"So in terms of the students, they can look over on the right hand side of the page and go ‘OK, so that's what I'm talking about.'"
Mellen has used No Fear Shakespeare for the Aemstrong Masquers production of Much Ado About Nothing, which opens April 12 in the Jenkins Hall theater.
The students are using the books as reference only - the final stage production remains pure Shakespeare. "Once they grasp the language, then they pretty much figure out what the heck's going on," Mellen says.
"A lot of times, it's just a matter of getting them to put stress on a different word in a line. And as soon as you do that, it's ‘Oh, now I get it. Now I know what I'm saying.'"
Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy set in a town in Sicily. It concerns two feisty pairs of young lovers, Benedick and Beatrice, and Claudio and Hero, and the "malcontent" Don John, who plots and schemes to split the couples up.
This is accomplished by planting rumors of infidelity, via various forms of trickery and lies. Much Ado is rife with instances of mistaken identity - both accidental and purposeful - and ribald punning.
"The Elizabethans were an incredibly bawdy people," Mellen laughs. "I remember when we were doing As You Like It, there was a particular line, and one of the actresses said something along the lines of ‘He doesn't mean what I think he means, does he?' And I said ‘Yes.' And she turned beet red. I said ‘Shakespeare talked about those things. Constantly.'"
According to Mellen, theater students tackling Shakespeare have a complicated mission before them. "I'll says ‘Now that you know what it means, somehow you have to figure out how to say it so that your audience - who do not have No Fear Shakespeare in their laps - will understand what you mean. And what you're trying to get at.'
"Which means you need to use your voice - inflection, and innuendo through. your voice. You need to use gesture. You need to use your entire body to get across what you mean."
The thespian, he says, needs to used everything in his or her power to make Shakespeare work. "And when he does, it's incredibly brilliant. For the actor who's performing it, and is suddenly doing what needs to be done to make these words live, it's a wonderful experience.
"And for an audience to watch someone take this thing that they suffered through in the 5th, 6th and 7th grade, and suddenly see it done by someone who knows what they're doing, it's ‘Oh my God! This is actually fun. It's so moving, or so sad, or so sweet, and I understand what the hell's going on.'"
Much Ado About Nothing
Where: Jenkins Hall, Armstrong Atlantic State University, 11935 Abercorn St.
When: April 12-22. Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Sundays at 3 p.m.
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