Monday, July 18, 2011

Elizabeth Rex: For whom the bell tolls

By Ann Dunham
Student Blogger

Editor's note: We asked Ann Dunham, a student at Deer Isle-Stoningon High School, to write about her experience of seeing the Opera House Arts productions of Much Ado About Nothing and Elizabeth Rex, which ran in repertory during Shakespeare in Stonington in July. This is part two of her reporting. I like this post because Ann writes about the anticipation of attending a performing art that is taking place within earshot of her regular life. Implicit in her thoughts is the question: When does art begin and end? But she also notes the complex experience of gender. Read Ann's thoughts on Much Ado here.

Every night for about a week, I could hear bells ringing at the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society barn just a few hundred feet down the road, and every night I would grow more and more curious, wondering what exactly was going on in that barn. I knew it was Elizabeth Rex, but I wanted to know more.

I hadn’t had high expectations for this play, as I had had for Much Ado, but after seeing them both, I must say Elizabeth Rex was by far my favorite.

Seeing new characters revealed from behind these other characters I had met in Much Ado was so intriguing and sometimes rather amusing. I was thoroughly engaged by these characters because I felt I already knew them as actors on a stage, and now I was going deeper, learning much more about them than I had in the previous play. As complex as most of Shakespeare’s characters are, I thought the Elizabeth Rex characters were even more so, more real, more cryptic.

The role of gender in this play was my favorite theme, and my favorite line was from Queen Elizabeth: "If you will teach me how to be a woman, I will teach you how to be a man." She was speaking to Ned, an actor who played Beatrice in Much Ado, who had had to act as a woman in order to succeed in his acting career. Quite oppositely, Queen Elizabeth had had to put aside her womanly feelings and act as a man in order to successfully rule England. Their relationship throughout the play was incredibly interesting, and at times funny. Their very existence contradicted the common rules of gender, and I found that very intriguing indeed.

A front-row view of MUCH ADO

By Ann Dunham
Student Blogger

Editor's note: We asked Ann Dunham, a student at Deer Isle-Stoningon High School, to write about her experience of seeing the Opera House Arts productions of
Much Ado About Nothing and Elizabeth Rex, which ran in repertory during Shakespeare in Stonington in July. This is part one of her reporting. I like this post because Ann describes both the surrender of imagination that can occur in theater and the anxiety many theatergoers feel when the fourth wall is broken by actors who interact directly and unpredictably with the audience. Read Ann's thoughts on Elizabeth Rex here.

Much Ado About Nothing was a marvelously funny Shakespearean comedy performed at the Stonington Opera House this summer. I had the unique experience of sitting in the front row for the show, and therefore being very close to all of the action.

Because the Opera House is on the smaller side, the actors use every bit of space to perform, including the aisles. As the play began, I was excited to be sitting front and center because I could see every step, every flip of the wig, every fall in a little more detail than most everyone else. I was getting very into the play as the actors pranced through the Opera House as if their characters were very real.

However, as the play went on, I nearly forgot that these characters were only characters, and became quite nervous, because Benedick, a very powerful, unpredictable character, continued to pace back and forth in front of the first row of seats. I worried what he might do. Perhaps he would once again mimic a bull and charge at anyone within range. Perhaps he would decide to involve one of us front-rowers in one of his dramatic speeches. Luckily, nothing of the sort happened, and I lived to see another day.

While Benedick was sitting on the edge of the stage and walking the aisles, I began to peer behind him at some of the other characters. I noticed their gestures, body language and eye rolls which showed Beatrice’s conflicted relationship with Benedick, Hero’s mad love for Claudio, Antonia’s strict loyalty to her brother.

I also, very amusedly, noticed all of the characters hiding in the background, spying on the greater action of the scene. All of my favorite pieces of the play were ones where someone was eavesdropping behind a corner. Not only because their methods of “hiding” were often ridiculous and hysterical, but also because it was so forbidden and mischievous. All of the overhearing caused quite a convoluted plot, which only made the play more amusing.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Shakespeare, art and the wig moment

Often in a performance, one moment – one gesture, one monologue, one flash of art – catches my attention and lingers in my thoughts long after the show ends. During our public reads of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing this summer at the Stonington Public Library, that "moment" occured when community member and citizen actor Larry Estey read Friar Francis’ monologue about fake-killing Hero so that Claudio can learn a lesson about mourning and love.

In lieu of a recording of Rachel Murdy’s fine performance of the role, here’s a performance of the monologue by an actor in California. He looks like a Friar from the Hood, and like the Unabomber and like Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, but I like the way he animates the language. And I like his dog barking in the background. You can also read the entire scene here.

But back to Estey. He’s a former minister, and his expertise at finding meaning in language was clear as he slowly delivered the Friar’s lines. He wasn’t dramatizing as much as explicating them as he read in a measured, confident style that illuminated the beauty of the cadences and the depth of the ideas. When he was done, our roomful of readers took a collective pause – the effect was striking and penetrating. We knew we had witnessed Estey tapping into a truth, into sentence and solace, as Chaucer called it: the meaning and comfort of art.

A “moment” of a different sort emerged for me during the cast’s performance of the play onstage, and it happened in an unexpected moment: at the curtain call. Craig Baldwin plays two roles in the production – Beatrice (the lead woman) and Borachio (an associate of the play’s bad boy Don John). As Beatrice, Baldwin wears big hair – a wig of blond locks – which he fondles and tosses throughout his performance. As Borachio, he is bald, which is his offstage look, too.

At the curtain call, Baldwin did something that really stunned me: He removed the wig. Not a large gesture, nor one of particular drama. But in that moment, both roles disappeared instantly. It was as if he said: “See? It was all a play. I’m an actor and a man.” It’s not as if we didn’t know all that throughout the performance; there was much made of this point by the creative team throughout the run of the show. But Baldwin’s movements were so elegant and humble in that moment, that the relationship between art and life and the roles we play onstage and off took on new poignancy for me.

Baldwin's action made me think more deeply about Queen Elizabeth I, who wore a wig, and whose Rex-ness was contained in her own body. It's worth noting that Kathleen Turco-Lyon, who plays Queen Elizabeth in both Much Ado and Elizabeth Rex (which ran in repertory with the Shakespeare), shaved her head for the role. It's no wonder (or coincidence) the person Elizabeth connects to the most in Elizabeth Rex is Ned, the Shakespearean actor who plays the women's role and therefore understands the slippery territory of wigs. So the wig is big this year -- in actual architecture and in symbolism. Tracking the wig is like following the crown in Shakespeare's histories. Who wears it wears profound meaning. Taking it off can also be a powerful action.

“The wig removal initially came from me as a sort of tribute to drag performers of a bygone era,” Baldwin later explained to me.

In fact, Baldwin’s thoughts on that moment are worth quoting in full:

It used to be that drag performers would dramatically remove their wig in their curtain call to say: “And all along I was a man!” Some of the famous examples of this can be seen in La Cage aux Folles and Victor/Victoria (which is even more complicated by a woman pretending to be a man playing a woman). It's not done so much any more in drag performance and, in fact, we were worried it might be a little over-the top or “camp” as a gesture. Camp was something we wanted to avoid with the show. I did, however, feel a certain sentimental need (as a gay man myself) to acknowledge the part of this that is a “drag” performance – how it fits into a long history and culture of men playing women. I discussed it with director Cynthia Croot, and she thought we should try it. When we did try it the audience reaction was warm and joyous. It feels like a fun acknowledgement of the cross-gender nature of the performance. As I shave my head bald normally, I think it is particularly visually dramatic in my case to rip off the wig at the end. It always gets a strong reaction. It is not that they don't “know” that I was a man all along. It is that we can all acknowledge together – performer and audience – that something so simple as a wig made the ‘transformation’ of gender possible. It's almost like saying: “What fun we had together pretending that I was a woman!” It is a complicated moment, and almost inexplicable, but it feels satisfying for me and the audience each time, so Cynthia and I decided together to keep it.

I'm grateful they did. We’re at the end of another Shakespeare in Stonington, at the end of our “moment” together with Shakespeare. But if you’re like me, the moment continues. The takeaway for me will be in the ongoing examination between art and life, where we find “ahas” and how they revisit us once we’re back in the real world. The real world? Hmm. Perhaps like gender roles, the difference between life and art may not have as many distinctions as we like to think. It's all very wiggy.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Cynthia Croot: Catalyst, observer, editor

Cynthia Croot is making her directorial debut at the Stonington Opera House with Much Ado About Nothing, which runs through July 16. Shake Stonington bloghead Alicia Anstead spent a few minutes with Croot on a break from rehearsal to talk about Stonington, directing and Shakespeare.

How has it been directing for theater in the remote setting of Stonington?
It's not Manhattan, which a lot of the actors are used to -- a very instant gratification landscape. Stonington is great for focusing energy and for walking with your work all the time. You go home, and you're still talking to the people you were just in a scene with. You have dinner, and act three comes up. It's a sense of retreat, where you can really concentrate on what you're doing. It's a wonderful space and it's astonishing what has been built here. When a group like this takes root and stays, it's almost like a maypole around which other activity can assemble itself. That's exciting to me to think about community and theater that way.

What interests you about the work at the Stonington Opera House?
You can do anything onstage -- you can read the phone book and it can be riveting. But the essential thing is the intent with which you do something and what you bring to it in terms of want and desire. You can do that on a larger scale with an organization. You can imbue everything that you do with a kind of humanist, democratic, deeply artistic position, committed to independent artists, committed to engaging work and engaging with community members. All of this is built into the foundaiton of the place and it's really inspiring to me.

Why are you director and not an actor or a designer?
I tried acting in college. I was actually pretty good at it. But I was working with student directors, and I thought I knew more than they did, and I wanted to see if I was right. I think I had a hard time taking direction, which is logical for the personality of a director. In a happy accident, my skills led to this. I'm naturally collaborative, naturally good at conflict resolution. I saw the theater as a place where I could build family that builds art.

What is the role of the director?
Primarily an inciter and an editor. You set something in motion based on what you see and observe. You have to be a really cagey observer. The catalyst, the observer and the editor.

What interests you about Shakespeare?
Shakespeare, because we still care about him, is mysterious and god-like to me. He seems to capture both this broad accessible space and the subtle nuances of the human heart in a deeply moving way. I fell in love with him during A Winter's Tale, which I did at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. It's so essential to his plays that to win something you much lose something. But it's not pat or simple. There's a sense of this is how life really is, but rendered in the most poetic way possible. In Much Ado, in particular, I love the idea of the soldiers coming home and they are no longer afraid for their lives any more, but love is a scary thing.

Is Much Ado one of the Shakespeare plays you really love?
It is now. There are a couple I love out of hand: Hamlet and Lear. But I fall in love with each one I do.

Can you work with a text like Much Ado and still make your own imprint, relay your own message?
Sure! What is the "much ado" about? The "much ado" is about love. The cross-gender casting puts us in a space where we ask the audience: Is it possible to consider love divorced from gender and divorced from sexuality -- to see people as people?

This is especially cogent given the changes in the gay marriage laws in New York. We're grappling with this as a country right now.
I didn't enter into this as an interrogation of gay union. But I'm sure that will be on people's minds as they watch.

PHOTO: Cynthia Croot by Alicia Anstead

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Much A-dude

By Linda Nelson
Executive Director of Opera House Arts

"Men should wear tights and tights only."

"It’s very masculine."

"It’s a very specific look."

These are comments overheard last Sunday afternoon during our first costume technical rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing, which opened June 30 at the Stonington Opera House, and continues through July 16.

For the first time in Opera House Arts' history, we've set our Shakespeare in Stonington production in Elizabethan times and style: which means an (almost) all male cast, with men playing the female roles as well as men playing men -- in tights. Or, to steal a phrase from a cast member: Much a-dude!

It turns out Much Ado, known widely as Shakespeare's most beloved comedy, IS a real dude show. It depicts a male fraternity of soldiers with a lot of male bonding and prank-making afoot but it also fixates on female purity, asking: Really, c'mon guys--what IS that all about?!

"Nothing" (pronounced "noting" in Elizabethan times) was Elizabethan slang for "vagina." Such language and plot devices move Much Ado from mere frothy rom-com into more complex and interesting territories of gender and power.

In Elizabethan times men wore their power, well, on their crotch. Soldiers, much like today's athletes, found tights to be the most effective costume in which to exert themselves. Instead of jock straps, they favored a codpiece: a padded device which (not unlike bum rolls or, more currently, bras) shapes and enhances (or masquerades as) male anatomy for optimal public display.

Thus the men are quite visibly dudes in Much Ado, prancing and dancing, and wearing their semblances of power front and center and looking darn good doing it (or perhaps it's just a welcome breath of fresh air to see male sexuality objectified the way female sexuality perpetually is). This wasn't an avant-garde costuming choice. It's merely historically accurate. And yet in the end all, even the resistant lothario Benedick, are happily married -- moved out of their frat house and into a broader and more inclusive vision of community, a wondrous vision thanks to the extreme acts of magic and trickery required to bring it to life. In this as in all of his comedies, Shakespeare's optimism is ultimately front and center. A hopefulness, perhaps, that we can move beyond war and other obvious displays of sexual and political power to something less polarized. As Friar Francis instructs in his final proclamation: "Let wonder seem familiar."

Or as Benedick concludes: "Man is a giddy thing."

PHOTOS by Linda Nelson, Opera House Arts:
ABOVE: Tim Eliot as Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing
CENTER: Craid Baldwin as Ned/Beatrice and Thomas Piper as Edmund/Benedick in Elizabeth Rex, running in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Thomas Piper: Who do you love?

This summer's troupe of actors at the Stonington Opera House has a mighty task. Not only do the cast members have to memorize a gajillion lines for Much Ado About Nothing, most of them play several roles -- and are also performing the contemporary play Elizabeth Rex, which opens Thursday, July 7 at the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society Barn, and runs in repertory with Much Ado at the Opera House through July 17. That's a lot of brain work.

What does it take to perform several roles on the same night? Thomas Piper plays the lead romantic role of Benedick (think Cary Grant or Clark Gable) and a secondary role as the wacko petty constable Verges (think Jerry Lewis or Marty Feldman). In these two videos, Piper delivers both characters as he answers the Bo Diddley (or for later rockers George Thorogood) question: Who do you love? Piper popped in and out of character within seconds -- just as he does onstage. It's in the eyes, the voice, the shoulders. But it's also in the imagination, a relationship forged by script, actor and audience. The videos are a lesson in the elasticity of an actor's tools -- and our willingness to go with him on an adventure -- even if it lasts less than a minute (the running time of each video).

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Friar Francis: How to see the light

One of my favorite scenes in Much Ado About Nothing, which opens tonight at the Stonington Opera House in Maine, comes rather late in the play -- when Friar Francis devises a plan to save Hero's reputation and to preserve the intended nuptials between her and her beloved Claudio. The friar basically kills off Hero for a while -- much in the same way Friar Lawrence did in Romeo and Juliet but with a much more comedic outcome. Shakespeare wrote R&J first, but the device of a fake death must have lingered in his writer's mind. Friar Francis explores the momentary death idea again, this time without drugs. In a powerful monologue about remorse -- where he knows that in Claudio's "study of imagination" the young lover will feel regret over his loss of Hero -- Friar Francis gives us a moving portrait of how we cope with loss and how we remember those we have wronged yet still love.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Shakespeare's rom-com

By Alicia Anstead

Where did the romantic-comedy film genre begin? Look no further than Much Ado About Nothing, which Shakespeare scholar Yu Jin Ko, a professor at Wellesley College, calls, at heart, a rom-com. Consider this year's popular film Bridesmaids or classics such as Bringing Up Baby, both of which have themes of wacky love affairs that begin antagonistically and resolve in romance. Sound familiar? Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick are a study not only in the age-old chaos of falling in love but they are also characters to whom so many in our of own times are indebted. Ko, who spoke about Measure for Measure last summer, will join me for a free audience-wide post-show discussion, including members of the creative team, after the performance of Much Ado 7 p.m. Friday, July 8 at the Stonington Opera House. Here's a preview of Ko's thoughts on the play.

There's a lot going on in this story. What do you see as the main theme?
I want to heed the warning of the title and not make too much ado about nothing, but it's no secret that one of the Elizabethan meanings of "nothing" is bawdy and refers to a female body part. And that bawdy meaning of "nothing" represents what a woman is to many of the men in this play -- not only an anatomical invitation, but a blank slate that they make make much ado about, shaping and scripting (or "noting," another homonym of "nothing") it in accordance with their desires, anxieties and fantasies. To me, the romance plots in the play turn on whether the men involved make much ado about nothing in this aggressive way or discover alternative ways of treating women.

If you had to compare this play to a contemporary movie, which one would you choose?
There are so many very sweet romances that still have emotional substance. Even soupy ones can reveal something very truthful or insightful about romance and get to you. Maybe it's hard to think of one in particular since the story of Much Ado has become something of a Hollywood formula -- the story of a romance that develops between two strong, funny and engaging characters who can't stand each other at the beginning.

What character do you like best in this play?
How about characters instead? Since they form a pair -- Benedick and Beatrice. They do get set up, but they find their own way to romance -- by having fun, battling, taking a huge risk and rewriting the rules about how men and women relate to each other.

Is Shakespeare really saying that love is "much ado about nothing?" I'm confused!
I know that the Claudio-Hero romance can be compelling and a delight to watch, but for me that is much ado about nothing in the darker sense, while the Benedick-Beatrice romance illustrates what genuine love can be like.

We sometimes think of love as one of the most prevailing themes of literature. And yet I'm not sure I see it as one of Shakespeare's pervasive themes. What do you think?
Romance is at the heart of many of Shakespeare's plays, but I would add, to echo what I think is the sense you have, that with a few notable exceptions (e.g., Antony and Cleopatra and The Winter's Tale), the plays that deal with love tend to show the process of people falling in love and pursuing each other rather than the much longer journey of a relationship. When the plays do dramatize the period after the initial coming together of lovers (e.g., Troilus and Cressida and Othello), it all tends to end in disaster. Still, I think that love -- more broadly defined in its many different manifestations -- remains central to the vision of many of Shakespeare's great plays, like King Lear and Pericles.


Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing at the Stonington Opera House. By Linda Nelson/OHA
Professor Yu Jin Ko, guest scholar for this year's Shakespeare post-show conversation on July 8.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hamlet, Prince of Deer Isle?

By Ann Dunham
Student Blogger

Millions of people love Shakespeare. Some love the emotions, some the characters, some simply the way he describes the experience of being human. For me, what’s most amazing about Shakespeare’s works is their timelessness. Like a good work of art, Shakespeare's plays express aspects of life that transcend time. Love, revenge, war, and political intrigue are just a few themes found in his work that are applicable to any era. The ideas he expressed were cutting edge for his time, yet because they focus on such universal issues they are still very “in” today.

In my sophomore English class at Deer Isle-Stonington High School, the teacher challenged us to rewrite a few scenes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A friend and I teamed up with the idea that this play, set in a royal palace in Denmark in the late Middle Ages, could translate very well to 21st century Deer Isle. Instead of living in a beautiful palace, most characters resided in modest houses. Hamlet spent most of his time in a boat house as the son of the most successful lobsterman on the island, while his best friend Horatio transformed from man to seagull. Despite the many changes, the main themes of the play were still communicated. Revenge, death and murder were still there under all of the decorations of setting and time. We even threw in some extra comedy, and the transition was still very believable.

Next time you read one of Shakespeare’s plays, or perhaps when you see Much Ado About Nothing live in rotating performances with the contemporary play Elizabeth Rex June 27-July 16 at the Stonington Opera House, think of how you can relate to the characters, how you can see the actions on stage happening in real life, and how relevant Shakespeare really is to your life.

FMI about performances of
Much Ado About Nothing and Elizabeth Rex, please click here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Hamlet (2005) at the Stonington Opera House.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Chat with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I

Shake Stonington editor Alicia Anstead caught up with Queen Elizabeth I in Stonington, Maine, where the Virgin Queen is in residence June 30-July 16 for performances of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing at the Stonington Opera House. When Shakespeare himself was just 5 -- according to scholar Stephen Greenblatt's imaginative biography Will in the World -- he may have seen the queen's "traveling playing companies" (much like the one that come to Stonington each summer) and may have been influenced by the performances and later by the "charismatic power of royalty." The following is the queen's view of life on an island much smaller than the one she calls home. She's a classy lady. And she brought some very cool clothes with her. Want to ask Her Majesty a question? Catch up with her on Facebook.

Welcome to Stonington, Queen Elizabeth. How's your stay going so far?
The people are very kind and very, very generous, indeed. They've offered their lodgings, wonderful food -- their baked goods are extraordinary. And their fish is terrific. We would like to have that kind of fish at court every day.

What do you miss most about your home in London?
My dance master and my hundreds of thousands of dresses. But that's small conpared to the hospitality I've experienced in the provinces.

What do you look forward to the most about your stay?
More than anything, I look forward to engaging with Mr. Shakespeare's acting company in the wonderful barn where they are styaing for the night.

Mr. Shakespeare? Tell me about him.
I've seen him over the years and have met him on several occasions. He's an enigma. One never really knows what he's thinking. He gives clues, but he never says the thing itself. That is both wonderfully exciting and terribly frustrating. He's very elusive -- to say the least. But brilliant. It's no surprise to me that he's an Englishman.

I hear he has a new play called Much Ado About Nothing.
He does! And I, in particular, love the character of Beatrice. Her sentiments seem to parallel mine at the moment: She wants to remain independent. There's a song in the play with the line: "Ladies, sigh no more." I like the tune but the sentiment is very exciting to me.

What will you be wearing the night you see the play?
Probably my white gown. The pearls in the gown were given to me by an admirer. I don't think I should say his name. But I have asked the court seamstress to affix them to the gown. It's a brocade.

Anything else, Your Majesty?
I do yearly progresses throughout the land, and I am so glad I chose this place this summer. The climate is fantastic. The food is amazing. And the people are so kind. The men in my court could learn a great deal from the citizens in Stonington.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Excuse me, what does Shakespeare mean to you?

By Ann Dunham
Student Blogger

What do you think when you hear the word "Shakespeare?" Do you remember the exciting play you saw at the Opera House last summer or the tedious, boring books you had to read in Junior English class? Does Shakespeare instill a sense of terror in you, or one of happiness and fun?

I decided to find out what the residents of Deer Isle and Stonington think about Shakespeare. Feeling quite pessimistic, I predicted most of my interviewees would find Shakespeare a stuffy old man who wrote a few dull plays too many years ago to matter much anymore. I thought I would have to drag answers out of most of the people I questioned; I thought they wouldn't really care about Shakespeare.

My presumptions couldn't have been further from the truth. People weren't apathetic about Shakespeare at all. In fact, everyone had a strong, definite opinion already formed in their heads. A few of my subjects, of course, didn't appreciate Shakespeare, but their reactions were at least fervid and full of feeling.

Below is a sampling of residents who shared their impressions of the Man Himself:

Student: “Powdered wigs, betrayal, shallow characters. Dandies in stockings frolicking around the stage with poison and swooning floozies.”

English Teacher: “Romance, love, Romeo and Juliet.”

Math Teacher: “Hearing 'Shakespeare' strikes fear in my heart. Miserable reading, falling asleep during productions, misery.”

Maid: “Shakespeare fills me with much inspiration. Reading his words of wisdom makes me feel more knowledgeable.”

Stay-at-Home Mom: “It is very difficult to understand. The language is confusing and hard to grasp. I was forced to read it in high school, and I have no desire to read it now.”

Student Actress/Musician: “Fun, comedy, physical theater. It is timeless. It can be interpreted to fit any time period.”

Professional Actress: “A world packed with riches.”

Even if Shakespeare doesn't strike joy in everyone, he does evoke passionate, excited responses and really makes everyone feel something. When I asked "What does Shakespeare mean to you?" I didn't think everybody would have a response. However, much to my pleasant surprise, Shakespeare seems to mean something to a wide variety of people.

Love him or hate him, Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing will be performed June 30-July 16 at the Stonington Opera House on Deer Isle.


Top: A Midsummer Night's Dream (2009)

Bottom: As You Like It (2006)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Summer of My Shakespeare

Summer is upon us, which means Shakespeare is in the air. If you're new to Shakespeare, or if you've been warned off Shakespeare as too difficult, or if you adore Shakespeare, you've come to the right place. Literally and bloggily. Our particular story is set in fair Stonington where, for more than 10 years, the Stonington Opera House has been creating Shakespeare productions that reach out to audiences in accessible and thought-provoking ways. I'm on record saying so during the years I spent as the Bangor Daily News arts critic. Now as critic-in-residence for the Shakespeare summer productions at OHA, I get to say it all over again in a variety of ways. And I have help. I'm joined this year by two Deer Isle-Stonington High School student bloggers -- Ann Dunham and Sasha Zembrusky -- in an exploration of all things Bard. Our show is Much Ado About Nothing, which is running in repertory with a contemporary play called Elizabeth Rex. (More on that in another post.)

To get started in our Much Ado journey -- and really any Shakespeare play -- you'll find seven steps for a power workout before attending a Shakespeare play Admittedly, I'm a geek when it comes to this topic. So the list may be overkill for some readers. You don't have to do everything on this list. And, most important, you don't have to do anything on this list to have fun at the shows. For me, more is always more. So I offer....more.

1. Read the play. Taking the time to read the actual script can familiarize you with Shakespeare's meter and some of the more obscure language so you're not guessing what every word means when you see the show. You can find these plays ... er ... nearly any place that has books. My favorite print version is The Riverside Shakespeare and the Opera House recommends the Folger Shakespeare Editions. (The Folger Shakespeare Library is also an awesome website.) Last resort, read the Google version or download this comprehensive iPhone app (which begs the question: Will Shakespeare's cell phone: iPhone or Droid?).

2. Read a synopsis of the play. Hey, isn't that cheating? Nope. Any way you can deepen your understanding of the story is fair game. You're not being graded. And it's sometimes fun to do a little background reading or compare your sense of the story to "scholarly" takes such as ... well ... SparkNotes.

3. Cue Sheet! The Stonington Opera House has developed a one-stop "cue sheet" that blends history and contemporary life in an easy-to-read approach to the theatrical works. Who does Queen Elizabeth remind you of? Why would she be called "rex" in one of the plays? What role did art play in her life? How has marriage changed in 400 years? The cue sheet out-geeks me.

4. Watch the movie. My favorite Much Ado is the 1993 version directed by the actor Kenneth Branagh. The arrival of the men on horses (at the 7-minute mark) is a triumph of Branagh's stagey brawn. But there's also Denzel Washington with his sexy winks. And Michael Keaton, who may be the most delightfully worst Shakespeare actor ever, delivering a hilarious performance as a nut-case cop. (Keanu Reeves is also in this version, and he really is the worst Shakespeare actor ever.)

5. Listen up. Our guest scholar and my fellow Shakespeare nerd Yu Jin Ko will be joining us onstage for a post-show discussion the weekend of July 9/10. He and I were recently so consumed with excitement over Shakespeare in the summer, we went on The Callie Crossley Show on WGBH radio in Boston to talk about it. You can listen here to two Shakespirited people talk about The Man and His Art -- and why the heat of the season is a magnet for the plays.

6. Follow Much Ado characters on Facebook. That's right: Queen Elizabeth, Beatrice, Hero, Benedik and Claudio are posting. Duh.

7. Become a citizen actor. Community Reads are where regular community members of all ages and experiences sit around a table and read the play aloud. These free events reveal some of the best interpretations of Shakespeare I've ever encountered. Anyone who wants a role gets a role -- you can even request one! We pause occasionally to talk about a word, history, the plot, echoes in current politics or family life. And often we switch roles. Celeb alert: Sometimes actors drop in to offer a teaser from the production. It's a pressure-free environment -- read or listen, stay for all or part. But the invitation is an open one. This year's reads are 4 p.m. June 21 (a one-day marathon!) at Blue Hill Public Library and 7 p.m. June 27 the Deer Isle Library/4 p.m. June 28 at the Stonington Library.

Bonus tip: Read our blog Shake Stonington to find out what Sasha (center), Ann (right) and I -- and other guest bloggers from the creative team -- are thinking about the play, the process and our community.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Brooklyn beginnings for Stonington's Shakespeare

By guest blogger and cast member Cherie Mason

At the end of May, I journeyed to New York City to attend the first rehearsals of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex, which will be performed in tandem June 30-July 16 at the Stonington Opera House. There are 12 actors in the company. Ten of us plus our stage manager and two directors met in rehearsal space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We sat in a circle and went around introducing ourselves and the parts we were playing. Then began the instructive exercise referred to in theater as "table work."

One of the directors is an Elizabethan scholar, and he gave us a sweeping view of the lineages and customs of the period in which the plays are set. Slowly the characters we were playing began to come alive especially when we set about figuring out possible relationships, for example, between Queen Elizabeth who loved to ride horses and Lady Henslowe's husband who was crushed by a horse. (I play Henslowe in Elizabeth Rex, as well as the gentlewoman Ursula in Much Ado.) We worked at least six hours everyday but the time flew. This grounding in the subtext of the plays will be invaluable to the actors.

Certain behaviors had to be decided on: Would we all speak with broad English accents? "No," said the director. "Keep the New England dialect with softened vowels." (That's like our native island neighbors in Maine!) Then there was the business of men and boys playing women, and actors playing multiple roles, which was the custom in Shakespeare's Globe Theatre of London. Challenging to say the least. I also got a glimpse of the drawings for the marvelous costumes being designed for both productions as well as the set designer's exquisite miniature sets.

It was difficult to have to leave after a week of such stimulating activity. I will rejoin the company members when they arrive mid-June in Stonington to continue rehearsals on site. Much Ado will be performed onstage at the Opera House. Elizabeth Rex will be staged in the beautiful new barn at the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society. Coincidentally, that is what Elizabeth Rex calls for as the Queen goes to a barn, after attending Much Ado, where she commands the Lord Chamberlain's Men -- the company for which Shakespeare worked -- to amuse and distract her on the eve of the beheading of her beloved Earl of Essex.

Cherie Mason is a board members of Opera House Arts and a regular performer at the Stonington Opera House. She will appear in both Elizabeth Rex and Much Ado About Nothing this summer.