Once more unto the breach

Justin Brake
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Theatre Curtain rises on another Shakespeare by the Sea Festival season

We've got a sea, and we've got an interest in Shakespeare. Put 'em together and you've got Shakespeare by the Sea, the annual St. John's summertime festival celebrating the work of the greatest playwright of all time - outdoors.

For the 16th consecutive year, members of the local theatre community have put together a selection of Shakespeare plays which will run the better part of the summer, from Sunday to Aug. 18, including "Antony and Cleopatra," "The Merry Wives of Windsor," and "Much Ado About Nothing."

The cast of Antony and Cleopatra rehearse in Harbour Side Park - Photo by Justin Brake/Special to The Telegram

We've got a sea, and we've got an interest in Shakespeare. Put 'em together and you've got Shakespeare by the Sea, the annual St. John's summertime festival celebrating the work of the greatest playwright of all time - outdoors.

For the 16th consecutive year, members of the local theatre community have put together a selection of Shakespeare plays which will run the better part of the summer, from Sunday to Aug. 18, including "Antony and Cleopatra," "The Merry Wives of Windsor," and "Much Ado About Nothing."

"This is not Shakespeare as you imagine it," says local actor Brad Hodder, who directed "Comedy of Errors" in last year's festival. The experience of doing Shakespeare outdoors, he adds, led him to return this year to bring "Antony and Cleopatra" to life.

"There's a certain embracing of the elements once you go outside," he adds. "There is something wonderful about being out in the open air and just getting to speak some of these words.

"I didn't know ("Antony and Cleopatra") beforehand and hadn't seen it, so I was interested in taking it on," he explains. "Having directed a comedy last year I really wanted to direct a tragedy this year."

One of the stipulations of directing a Shakespeare by the Sea play, explains festival co-founder Danielle Irvine who is directing "The Merry Wives of Windsor," is choosing an outdoor setting for the production.

Past venues have ranged from Logy Bay and Topsail Beach to Cape Spear and the Murray Premises, and the current anchor site is the Cabot 500 Theatre in Bowring Park. Hodder chose to add another outdoor venue to the festival's repertoire and will run his play at the Harbourside Park just below the War Memorial on Water St.

"'Antony and Cleopatra' will be led by Steve O'Connell and last year's Lady Macbeth, Wendi Smallwood.

"They make everyone around them better," Hodder says of his two leads, "and they ask everyone to raise the bar."

For "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Irvine has assembled an all-male cast to play the mostly female roles in the play, an arrangement she predicts will account for the majority of the play's humour.

"In Shakespeare's day everybody would have been performing all-male anyway," she explains. "The real humour of this play comes out because it's all male, because there are so many lines with two merry wives looking at each other going 'Oh woman,'" she explains, adjusting her voice to sound like a man in a woman's voice. "When two women say that it's just not as funny, but when you have two men in drag saying it, it is. (Shakespeare) was writing specifically for males to say these words."

For an extra twist, Irvine has set the play in the Southern United States, circa the 1860s.

"Think 'Gone with the Wind,' think big hoop skirts and southern accents," she says.

"Much Ado About Nothing" is being directed by festival veteran Jennifer Deon, who took over as Shakespeare by the Sea artistic director in the mid-90s when Irvine left to attend theatre school on the mainland.

"It's a battle of the sexes," explains Irvine, referring to Deon's all-female cast. "It's really witty."

"That cast is stacked with a lot of talent," adds Hodder. "It's all gals being dudes and gals being gals too in some cases, and chicks kissing and stuff like that."

The fourth production of this year's season is the returning double-header of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls" and Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," both directed by Dave Walsh and running down in the dark, candle-lit cellar of Newman Wine Vaults on Water St.

If Hodder and Irvine's excitement are any indication of the entertainment value of this year's productions, Shakespeare and theatre enthusiasts alike should be in for a treat.

"It's lip service to say that Shakespeare resonates for everybody and the stories are universal," says Hodder, explaining the challenge and fulfillment of directing a Shakespeare play. "That's the easy stuff to say, but at the end of the day ... how do you make it work?"

"We're built for it," interrupts Irvine, explaining a reasonably legit connection to the province. "Shakespeare was writing when Newfoundland was founded, so the people who came over here and settled here - they were speaking his language. So, we were closest to Shakespeare's English ... the accent, the rhythm, the phrasing. We're just built for it."

"At the end of the day (Shakespeare) is just a really great storyteller," Hodder adds. "In Newfoundland we like to tell a good story and we like to hear a good story."

Those who attend a Shakespeare by the Sea play are reminded to bring blankets, lawn chairs, picnics, or anything else to make the experience pleasant. Since the plays are dependent on good weather, the status of plays will be posted on the festival's web site, www. nfld.com/~sbts/. For more information, contact the festival's office at 743-7287.

Organizations: Cabot 500 Theatre in Bowring Park

Geographic location: Windsor, St. John's, Logy Bay Topsail Beach Harbourside Park Newfoundland Southern United States

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