Over the last four years, the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre has toured up and down the Parks Highway, through Anchorage, Valdez and Kenai, and even twice overseas to the Edinburgh (Scotland) Fringe Festival.
This month, the company is mounting its most ambitious project yet a month-long, 24-cast-and-crew production of "The Winter's Tale" through seven Alaska cities, as well as Atlin, British Columbia, and Haines Junction, Yukon Territory.
The show stops in Kenai on July 25 and 26 for 7:30 p.m. performances at Kenai Landing, following its 7:30 p.m. performances July 22 through 24 at Homer's Pier One Theatre. Tickets are $16 for adults. Those under 18 are admitted free.
"We've toured quite a bit, and we're trying to expand the scope of the theater and really become the state's flagship Shakespeare company," theater executive director Scott Jackson said. "We decided that this year, as opposed to touring internationally, the best thing would be to take this to as many Alaska communities as possible."
The tour began in Haines Junction at the beginning of July and has played so far this month in Atlin, Juneau and Haines.
In Haines Junction, the cast and crew which includes a handful of Perseverance and Theater in the Rough regulars marched in the town's Canada Day parade before performing that evening.
In Atlin, the stage was in the middle of a ballpark.
"Atlin was extraordinary," director Graham Watts said. "Not only had they not seen 'The Winter's Tale,' they'd never seen any Shakespeare. We had over 100 there, and there were only 400 in town. They were so grateful; they gave us a standing ovation at the end.
"The actors were changing in the bullpen, and the audience kept coming up and thanking the actors for coming to town. They're a nice audience, and I don't mean that in a condescending way. They responded to the fantasy of the story. They responded to the beautiful ending and so on. It was our best audience so far."
At the theater's forest headquarters in Fairbanks, "The Winter's Tale" has included a cast of 45, and a mule and dogsled team on a massive two-balcony set with a 20-foot ski slope.
"Up here, it was a big chore," Jackson said. "We had performances at 98 and 100 degrees, and we were dressed in fur coats and gloves and hats. It was unreal."
Watts has pared down the production to a portable 20-by-20-foot, diamond-shaped rink of synthetic ice, imported from Las Vegas. The rink can be set up indoors or outdoors, on stages of various size.
"The stage has beautiful clean lines," Watts said. "It's almost Japanese. You just let the actors interact, rather than use any kind of big effects."
Watts, for five years a director at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, has previously worked with the company on "Love's Labor Lost," in 2001, and "Julius Caesar," in 2003.
"The standard is surprisingly high in Fairbanks," Watts said. "Obviously, we pull people up from the Lower 48. But the kind of quality we've got here is extraordinary. And not just the actors, the live musicians.
"The play is certainly set in the late Victorian period," Watts said. "The first half you get that claustrophobic, monochrome, cold and bitter environment. The second half is set in the beautiful Alaska summer with bluegrass music and a lot of dances and a lot of comedy. Of course there are famous stage lines, like, 'Exit, pursued by a bear.' It seemed to be oddly appropriate for Fairbanks, and the rest of the state."
The Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre began with a performance alongside Fairbanks' Chena River in 1992. Last year in Edinburgh, the company's production of "Hamlet" was written up as one of the festival's "unexpected highlights."
After playing Kenai, the show proceeds to Healy, before concluding in Fairbanks on July 31.
Next year, the company plans to mount a Bush tour, with stops in Barrow, Nome and Kotzebue, among other destinations.
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