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McKellen's living scrapbook on Shakespeare. Tony winner rescues the Bard from the classroom in a winning one-man show

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Ian McKellen loves acting so much - is such a purist, in fact - that he disdains the use of electronics, either for his benefit or his audience's. He won't allow microphones anywhere near his stage. He won't permit air cooling, if the sound of the air conditioner is in noticeable competition with his voice. This was one of the creeping surprises the noted British actor presented in his one-man show called ``Ian McKellen Acting Shakespeare'' at the Charles Playhouse here. As the acting heated up, so did the theater, until Mr. McKellen was not the only one mopping his brow. But for a while, nobody noticed the rising temperature, so fascinating is McKellen's material and so winning his performance.

All this is fair warning to theatergoers not only in Boston, where the show continues through Oct. 4, but also in San Diego and Cleveland, the cities McKellen will visit next as he winds up his United States tour.

``Acting Shakespeare'' is partly a kind of living scrapbook of well-known snippets of well-known plays. Because most of the speeches are familiar, McKellen is not forced into lengthy stage-setting as he moves through some 20 characterizations. Without costumes or scenery or props of any kind (save a sturdy chair, upon which he leaps more than once), he makes us ``see'' daggers and scrolls and other actors. There is even a part of the stage that becomes identified as Shakespeare's grave, to which McKellen reverentially returns to remind us that a single person wrote these marvelous speeches and conceived this rich range of characters.

But ``Acting Shakespeare'' is more than an evocation of familiar plays and scenes. Its format includes a running narrative and commentary, delivered with such fluency and unforced enthusiasm that the performance has aspects of an impromptu soiree. Anecdotes, jokes, and judgments tumble out as if momentarily inspired, yet paraded with an unmistakable artistic discipline.


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