On Stage

Betting on the Bard

A seasonal dose of Shakespeare

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

During the course of my four-plus decades of life, I’ve seen a whole lot of Shakespeare.

Whether I was watching comedic masterpieces (Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, etc.) or shuddering at the tragedies unfolding in front of me via iambic pentameter (Romeo and Juliet, King Lear), the intoxicating language the Bard of Avalon left behind has remained one of the reasons I’ve watched more than eight iterations of Macbeth and nearly as many productions of The Taming of the Shrew. (In college, I even let my body be plastered with felt fig leaves and braved the role of the impish Puck in the perennially popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

Through it all, watching Shakespeare in the great outdoors has remained my favorite way to soak up a seasonal dose of what many—including me—consider to be the best playwright of all time. I don’t know if I enjoy it so much because watching theater performed outside brings audiences closer to the elements, or because it hearkens back to a simpler time, but watching dusk settle on actors who are re-creating plays that were written hundreds of years ago moves me in ways that are hard to name. 

In perusing the Shakespearean offerings that can be seen nearby this summer, it’s pleasing to note there are a wide variety of productions to choose from.

To the north, Vancouver B.C.’s long-running Bard on the Beach spent last month getting revved up for a full summer of Shakespeare at their permanent seaside space at Vanier Park. They’ve spent June showing off their version of the comedic Twelfth Night—which they’ve updated by setting in a European spa—and the tragic Hamlet, which a recent press release described as being about “a troubled young man trying to make sense of a modern-day world where power still corrupts absolutely.”

Starting this month, Bard on the Beach will add two more plays to the repertory. Measure for Measure, which they’ve sent in early 1900s New Orleans and added live jazz to, begins July 3. Elizabeth Rex opens July 5, and although it’s not a technically a play written by William Shakespeare, it is set in Elizabethan England. Its subject matter is fitting, as well, as the plot sees the great Queen joining up with Shakespeare’s acting company the night before her traitorous lover is to be executed.

“Vancouver audiences have told us they want to see us produce some non-Shakespearean works that complement his world and his themes; Elizabeth Rex fits that description perfectly,” longtime artistic director and Bard on the Beach founder Christopher Gaze says.

“Outdoors and under the stars, the way it was meant to be” has always been the motto of Shakespeare Northwest, the Skagit River Shakespeare festival that has been bringing audiences the best of the Bard since first performing at Mount Vernon’s Edgewater Park in 2001. And, other than the summer of 2008—when they moved operations inside for a season—they’ve remained committed to showing their productions al fresco.

For the third year, those who want to venture to the Skagit Valley to seek out the Bard can do so at the Rexville-Blackrock Amphitheatre—a former quarry Shakespeare Northwest has cleaned up and reclaimed from the forces of nature. When you’re sitting inside its craggy confines as night falls—as I was a few years ago when a friend got married on the same spot—it’s possible to believe you’re far removed from the modern world.

Starting July 11 and continuing at various times through August 19, both comedy (The Merry Wives of Windsor) and tragedy (Hamlet) will help transport viewers even further away from contemporary society and back to a time when live theater was one of the only ways to be entertained during long summer nights.

And even if you’ve seen each and every one of the plays mentioned in this story before, as a lifelong viewer of all things Shakespeare, I feel safe in saying that with the Bard, it’s always like the first time. 

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