The front of his sweatshirt says, “Lear for a year.” On the back: “The wonder is that we have endured so long.”

Nicholas Pennell played the Fool for a year in the Stratford Festival’s production of King Lear, which was performed in Chicago in 1985. Pennell didn’t merely endure; he prevailed, giving a performance that was unforgettably lucid.

Now Pennell is back, intent on bringing that same lucidity to the production of Macbeth he is directing at the Court Theatre. Surprisingly, he doesn’t pursue that goal by teaching the actors how to recite. He won’t even use the word “recite.”

“The actors speak the lines; they never recite them,” Pennell said pointedly. “To recite means poetry, and that’s what we want to avoid. The moment you say, ‘This is great poetry,’ actors either start to sing it, or they start to think, ‘I can’t speak poetry–I’m a contemporary actor and therefore I don’t understand.’ Either way, it creates resistance to allowing the play to emerge.”

Instead of focusing on how the words sound, Pennell, a veteran of 17 seasons with the Stratford Festival, concentrates on their meaning. If actors understand the meaning, they will speak the lines coherently.

“When you can’t hear someone onstage, it means they’re not thinking,” Pennell said. “If actors are not crystal clear, moment to moment, about the supporting structure for each word they speak, they become inaudible. They become like a radio station that fades in and out. My job is to clarify in their minds what they are thinking as they speak the text.”

The best way for actors to clarify the meaning of their lines, according to Pennell, is to link the action of the play to events from their own lives. For example, in trying to understand the Fool, Pennell thought back to the vaudeville comedians he had seen as a boy. The parallel was obvious: the Fool, under the guise of humor, taunts the king for what he’s done–divide up his kingdom between two ungrateful daughters. Vaudeville comedians performed essentially the same function for their audience, pointing out their pretensions and illusions, but humorously.

“I always loved that kind of working-class truth telling,” Pennell said. “In the 1960s, it was rechristened as satire, but it performed the same duty, which was to tell the truth; and that is the Fool’s function. He stands far enough outside the action to know the tragedy that will befall Lear, and he has license to comment on it.”

Pennell tries to help the actors in Macbeth by bringing out relevant images from their lives. At first, the plot seems to bear little resemblance to contemporary events: Medieval Scotland is torn by civil war. Macbeth, the strongest military leader, feels entitled to the throne when King Duncan steps down. Instead, Duncan names one of his sons as his successor. Macbeth murders the king and steps into power himself.

Despite apparent differences, Pennell finds strong parallels in Macbeth to contemporary political events.

“The political climate of the play has to do with the emergence of political and military power,” Pennell said. “The choice is a political one–who is the strongest man? It has nothing to do with who is next in line to inherit the throne. When Duncan says, ‘I name Malcolm Prince of Cumberland,’ he’s merely saying who his favorite is for taking over the crown. It was not necessarily a blood succession, it was a power succession, and that parallels our own time. We’re in an election year, the last year of a presidency. The candidates are battling each other in the primaries, and everyone is wondering who is going to be the coming leader. We’re dealing with a political situation that is absolutely paralleled in the play.”

Pennell asked Jeff Bauer, who designed the set and the costumes, to avoid placing the play in the distant past.

“I wanted to be nonspecific about the period and the location,” Pennell said. “I certainly didn’t want it set 1,000 years ago. I find that eighth- and ninth-century costumes–with all their furs and leather, the primitiveness–work against the extraordinarily dense and complex lyricism of the play. But I didn’t want modern dress either. So we opted for a military design from no recognizable period or place.”

For Pennell, then, Macbeth is about the emergence of political and military power, and what one man is willing to do to obtain it. And because that timeless theme bears an especially striking relation to the present, Pennell encourages his actors to read the papers and stay abreast of contemporary events.

“All of that feeds into what we do as actors,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re out of touch with our job as actors.”

But he is wary about identifying specific parallels between the play and real life.

“I think if I were to nail the play to any specifics, I would diminish Shakespeare’s genius,” Pennell said. “I think Shakespeare’s genius enables us to lock into everything happening around us–spiritually, morally, politically, economically. And it is his genius as a playwright that the plays constantly view the human condition as it exists when those plays are performed.”

Macbeth runs through April 3 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 PM, with special performances Tuesday, March 29, at 8 PM and Saturday, April 2, at 2:30 PM. Call 753-4472 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Sutton.