Hana Lass and Jake Wade rehearse their roles of Beatrice and Benedick in William and Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" in the woods at the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre's camp. The company will perform the play in Kenai this weekend.
Photo courtesy of the Fairbanks
The Bard is back.
Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre is returning to Kenai this weekend to perform "Much Ado About Nothing."
Now in its 13th year, the group hadn't done this play before, which is widely acknowledged to be Shakespeare's finest comedy. Graham Watts, the group's director, said it was about time. He said the play will be a nice fit for outdoor venues which the group typically performs in while on tour.
"We just want to present this wonderful comedy which people can come along to, bring a picnic and have a wonderful afternoon of theater in the round," Watts said.
The theater company has made a mission of exposing as many viewers as possible to the magic and mastery of Shakespeare by putting on a different play every year. With Fairbanks as its home, the company performs weeks of shows there but does about half its performances elsewhere.
Last year the group's summer tour included a swing through Southeast and Canada, as well as some stops in Southcentral. This year the tour includes Girdwood, Talkeetna, Palmer, Healy, Anchorage, Seward and Kenai. The group has performed as far abroad as the Edinburgh (Scotland) Fringe Festival and this fall a Shakespeare in America grant will enable performers to visit several Bush communities, including Nome, Bethel and St. Paul Island in the Aleutians.
In today's world of sitcoms, soap operas and reality TV, Shakespeare's work may not be as big a part of public consciousness as it once was, but Watts said the Fairbanks group's shows don't suffer from a lack of interest or attendance.
"Our experience has been people still have this kind of passion and thirst for Shakespeare," he said.
When the company performed in Atlin, British Columbia last summer, about a quarter of the town's population of about 400 came to see the show where it was staged in a ballpark. A live Shakespeare performance was a first for the community.
"The whole town was buzzing about it," Watts said. "To them they were coming to it completely new. They had no preconceptions whatever. They just really, really enjoyed it."
The group's policy of not charging admission for anyone 18 and under has helped swell audiences as well as educate youth about Shakespeare even if they don't realize they're learning while they watch.
Following a Fairbanks performance last year a group of teens came up to Watts and told him how much they enjoyed the play.
"Then in deciding what to do next, they said, 'Let's go see 'American Pie 2.'" Watts said. "They don't recognize it as a night of culture, it's just a great night out, and that's how it should be."
As one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, "Much Ado About Nothing" will be more familiar to prospective audience members than other shows the group has done, like last year's "The Winter's Tale." The play was made into a popular movie in 1993 starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington and others. Watts said he hopes the wide exposure of the play will entice more people to watch the Fairbanks group's interpretation of it.
"Shakespeare's work is reinterpreted all over the world, particularly 'Much Ado' that's such a wonderful comedy. ... If they don't know it, they're a little more reluctant to come along. They think, 'Maybe it's not for me.' But it is," Watts said.
"Hopefully there will be some better performances than in the movie, as well," he added.
A familiarity with the plot also should help audiences follow along with the play better. However, Shakespeare's knack for dramatizing common human experiences means viewers should relate to the play without knowing anything about it.
"It's about relationships. Relationships we've all been in and situations and so on," Watts said.
The story is set at a 19th century wealthy Southern plantation in the summer following the War of 1812. Against this backdrop the soon-to-be-wed couple Hero and Claudio conspire to get confirmed singles Benedick and Beatrice headed to the altar, too. Verbal sparring, mischievous matchmaking, stage fighting, dancing and the antics of Dogberry, who, according to Watts is "just a masterful comic creation," offer much to be entertained by.
Though the dialogue was written long ago, the puns and jokes will still translate into modern humor, Watts said.
"They use the same formula in comedy today," he said.
The production also will feature period costumes and an original score written by composer Sarah Llewelyn. Watts, who is from England, worked with Llewelyn in London.
"It's working really well for us," he said. "It's stunning music. She's only 24 and a genius."
Watts said the classical score fits the feel of the play, both its lighthearted moments and darker side.
"And it suits the characters," he said. "There's some great characters in the piece and the music kind of matches them."
While in town, Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre performers will conduct acting workshops with adults, teens and children Saturday.
"We just do some basic movement, vocal warmups and some improv," said Christy Burgess, the education coordinator for the acting company. The workshops are geared toward beginners and are kept low-key. "It's a little nerve wracking to get up on stage and explore in front of people and what not."
Performances will be at 5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Kenai Green Strip Park in conjunction with the Kenai River Festival. If it rains, performances will move to the Old Town Playhouse in the old Gary King's store in Kenai. Admission is $20 for adults, $15 for military, students and seniors and free for youths 18 and under. Shows will be held in the round and people are encouraged to bring chairs.
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