Taking on the Bard – 2006 style
DILLON ” You’ve never seen Shakespeare like this.
“The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” now playing at the Lake Dillon Theatre is a whirlwind of costume and character changes, props and even some choreographed schtick. Josh Blanchard, Chris Alleman and Matt Renoux jump in and out of character ” don’t be surprised to hear the occasional, “Dude, what are you doing?” ” as they pay tribute in some way or another to each of Shakespeare’s works.
Blanchard, who is also the stage director, goes through a myriad of wigs playing Juliet, Ophelia and Cleopatra as the three take Shakespeare’s plays and characters to places they’ve never been before. “Othello” is rapped, “Macbeth” is done in “perfect Scottish accents” and sock puppets are used to show the play within a play in “Hamlet.”
Most actors have performed Shakespeare at one point during their careers, or at least studied the subject in school. Renoux, who’s taken a class but never performed the Bard said, “The most unfamiliar part of the process was wearing tights.”
The language is the thing that will keep the attention of the audiences to come. The works of William Shakespeare have been performed continually since the 17th century due to the timeless nature of his themes, yet today’s productions are exercising new freedoms in interpretation as well as using lighter takes on the Bard’s classics.
Lynn Nichols, general manager of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, described the changes in the company’s ideology since its inception nearly 50 years ago.
“When we first started in 1958, the idea was to do things strictly in Elizabethan costumes with almost no set ” a few banners and flags ” and little lighting design on a simple stage,” he said. “Over the years it’s progressed to more uniquely staged productions, translated into different time periods, more scenery and more input by a lighting designer. We’ve become a more visual society, and we needed that element in production even though the focus is still on the language of Shakespeare.”
The last two years the Boulder company has welcomed the Unexpected Shaxpere! troupe for its summer festival. The Seattle-based improv group takes suggestions from the audience on settings and concepts and uses Shakespearean language and ideas to act them out. Performing in the same vein as the improvisational TV show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” the troupe has been a hit with audiences.
Nichols said the idea to use the improv group was partly due to the cost-efficiency of the production.
“We did it in a period of time when attendance was kind of low and it was an inexpensive way to have four shows ” not paying a set designer, or, in this case, a director,” Nichols said.
Chris Alleman, artistic director at the Lake Dillon Theatre, echoed the sentiment that cost can be prohibitive to putting on classic Shakespeare.
“It’s like trying to do a big Broadway show,” he said, citing the period clothing and sets as well as large casts needing 25-35 actors.
The Dillon theater company’s latest production, which opened Friday, is able to touch on each of Shakespeare’s works using only three actors. The catch is that “The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” is a spoof that presents all of the Bard’s theatrical works in one eventing, taking a special joy in funning with the tragedies. Alleman, Josh Blanchard and Matt Renoux take on this task and let the audiences have as much fun as they seem to be having onstage.
And keeping that connection with the audience ” a vital part to any successful theater ” is why many companies are finding new ways to communicate Shakespeare.
The Utah Shakespearean Festival is currently putting on “The Merchant of Venice” with the original text, yet director R. Scott Phillips describes the play as “very bold and direct and in your face.”
The costumes are Elizabethan, but also leather and contemporary. And the theme of Jews and Christians can be seen in a more modern light. “This is the world today, this is the Muslims and Catholics, Republicans and Democrats, or labels on anyone,” he said.
Nichols with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival said they’ve also put on a couple of plays with the original text, yet set them in the 1930s.
“Most modern audiences are more familiar with it, and it’s closer to what we wear; yet some of the society issues in the 1930s were closer to the issues going on in Shakespeare’s time, such as classes of people,” he said.
Shakespeare festivals usually include at least one classic interpretation each season and they can also be seen at bigger venues like the Denver Center Theatre Company, which will stage “King Lear” this coming February. The Backstage Theatre in Breckenridge recently put on a performance of “Twelfth Night,” with the Boulder-based Shakespeare Oratorio Society in a bare bones, staged reading.
Sam Sandoe, a member of the troupe since the 1970s, said he’s been doing Shakespeare for all these years partly because of the availability of roles. He also, however, understands the draw.
“Shakespeare touches on so many facets of the human condition and so deeply,” he said. “That’s why his plays have endured.”
Phillips with the Utah festival said as far as the more offshoots of the Bard go, he personally doesn’t mind them as long as the audience gets to hear some of the originals.
“Our hope and our belief, is that if we can attract someone who doesn’t normally attend, or only likes comedies or musicals, and they have a positive experience ” perhaps they might try ‘Taming of the Shrew’ or ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ We’ve had some success and that’s the reason why we branched out,” he said.
Nichols, however, considers the updated versions worthwhile in and of themselves.
“If successful, it adds to the experience and relates it more to (the audience) … It’s a part of American theater practice today ” taking Shakespeare settings in different periods to communicate to a modern audience.”
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