Shakespeare comes to Big Rapids

‘AS YOU LIKE IT’: Actor Keith Bogucki will play the role of Silvius during next weekend’s Big Rapids Shakespeare Festival. The inaugural event will feature four performances of the comedy “As You Like It” under the Big Rapids Band Shell.

Local thespians found summer festival celebrating 400-year-old works of the English bard

BIG RAPIDS — Before ever meeting each other, Rod Oden and Zachary Krebs shared a common vision for the Big Rapids Band Shell.

The pair of formally-trained actors — who met this past winter on the set of STAGE-M’s “Moon Over Buffalo” — had separately walked along the Riverwalk and envisioned performing the works of William Shakespeare under the band shell.

Their shared dream of creating a summer Shakespeare festival will come to fruition next weekend.

“There’s just something so special about performing outside,” Krebs said. “For five years I did Shakespeare in this funky, little, 1960s-era band shell in west Los Angles. Then I saw Hemlock Park by the (Muskegon) River. Compared to the sirens and helicopters of west LA, it’s a beautiful place: The location is going to be inspiring. The play we’re doing takes place in a forest, so we’re going to be in and around the trees and with the wind blowing through — it’s going to be a dynamic kind of atmosphere.”

Oden and Krebs teamed up with fellow local thespians Tom and Mary Davis to form Big Rapids Shakespeare Festival LLC, a nonprofit organization. The group will host its inaugural festival next week at the band shell with four performances of the comedy “As You Like It.”

Performances will be at 7 p.m. on Friday; at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday; and at 2 p.m. on Aug. 19 under the band shell behind Big Rapids Middle School. The 15-person cast will perform an abridged, one-hour version of the original play.

Organizers are using the festival as a way to expose the community to the works of Shakespeare in a relaxed atmosphere. They hope to make the weekend festival an annual event.

The group feels the works of the turn of the 17th century author and playwright intimidates many people, said Tom Davis, public relations manager. He hopes the festival eases the anxieties of those who have trouble understanding Shakespeare.

SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK: Ta’Shara Reynolds will play the role of Phoebe in next weekend’s performance of “As You Like It” at the inaugural Big Rapids Shakespeare Festival. Cast members have the past several weeks rehearsing for the performances.

“When we first started meeting, we said, ‘The problem with Shakespeare is most kids read it in high school and don’t get it,'” said Davis, who has performed in STAGE-M plays for more than 10 years. “When you’re reading it you’re like, ‘This looks weird. This is English?’ People don’t understand it on the page, because Shakespeare is meant to be performed. Once you see it performed with the action, you think, ‘Oh, that makes sense.'”

Organizers originally wanted to do a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but decided against it because the Big Rapids High School Theatrical Arts Department performed it in April. They selected “As You Like It” because it is a upbeat, playful comedy that will seem familiar to audiences.

“The play we selected has a lot energy,” said Oden, who is directing the play. “A lot of troupes want to do ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘Hamlet,’ and the other mainstream Shakespeare plays. A lot of people are aware of ‘As You Like It,’ but they don’t really know all of the story. What they don’t know is that they already know the play, because they’ll recognize some of the lines; that’s the beauty of Shakespeare.”

“As You Like It”

Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It” is the story of Rosalind, the heroine daughter of a banished English duke. She falls in love with Orlando, the disinherited son of one of her father’s friends.

When Rosalind is banished from the court by her usurping uncle, Duke Frederick, she disguises herself as a man (Ganymede) and travels with her cousin, Celia, and the court jester, Touchstone, into the Forest of Arden, where her father and his friends are living in exile. By the end of the play, Rosalind and Orlando fall in love and are married.

Celia marries Orlando’s mean older brother, Oliver. He eventually becomes a gentler person, which causes the duke to change his ways and turn to religion so that Rosalind’s father can once again rule the courts.

The play is filled with mistaken identity, madness, mayhem, rage, lust, laughter and heartbreaking and joyous romance. It is believed Shakespeare wrote “As You Like It” in 1599.

“It’s a lighthearted play about lovers who are crossing one another and are unaware of it,” Krebs said. “It’s not a heavy, history drama that takes a lot of attention to understand. There’s a little bit of slapstick, a little bit of farce, it’s very fast paced and a lot of fun. Even if people are lost in the language, they’ll be caught up in the personal interactions between the characters and the running around on stage.”

Although the work is more than 400 years old, it contains some of Shakespeare’s most famous and often quoted phrases, including “all the world’s a stage,” and “too much of a good thing.”

Since the inventions of radio and video, the play has been adapted several times for stage and screen performances. It also was released in 2009 as a manga-style graphic novel set in China.

TAKING DIRECTION: Director Rod Oden (center) reviews the script for the Shakespeare comedy “As You Like It” with Katie Blackburn (Audrey) and Scott Fransee (Adam) during rehearsal this week. The inaugural Big Rapids Shakespeare Festival will four performances of the play next weekend under the Big Rapids Band Shell behind Big Rapids Middle School.

Notable actors who have played characters in “As You Like It” include Sir Laurence Olivier and Helen Mirren.

Olivier’s first Shakespeare film performance was as Orlando in 1936. More than 40 years later, in 1978, Mirren starred as Rosalind in a BBC version of the tale.

“As You Like It” also was adapted in 2006 for a film directed by Kenneth Branagh set in 19th century Japan. It was released theatrically in Europe and appeared on HBO in the U.S.

“As You Like It” also is featured at this summer’s Shakespeare Festival at The Old Globe theater in San Diego. The west-coast company’s nearly three-hour-long version features Joseph Marcell — who is best known for his role as Geoffrey on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — as the jester Touchstone. Other plays being performed at the festival include “Richard III” and “Inherit the Wind.”

One of the Big Rapids group’s largest challenges in organizing the play was making sure the actors are comfortable with their roles.

“Getting people comfortable with the thought of doing Shakespeare and not being intimidated by it was tough. It’s just like any other play, but in a foreign language,” Oden said with a laugh. “Our performers are a wonderful group of people who are energized and excited. Ironically, the audience is equally as excited for this. Big Rapids is a big community and supports the arts at every opportunity. People have told us they think its very cool that we’re going to be doing what thousands of communities across the nation do every year, which is summer Shakespeare in the park.”

400 years of relevancy

The underlying themes in Shakespeare’s works still resonate with to audiences today. His ideas and tales have remained popular with people throughout the centuries because they connect with the human experiences in the stories.

“In Shakespeare, there’s always war, political intrigue, love, lost love, death and so on,” Krebs said. “Once you understand some of his lines, you see the political commentary that’s still relevant today. For example, one theme related to today is people in power using their power to the ills of others and the human will to overcome that. When people start realizing that it has a commentary on their everyday experience, it makes Shakespeare easier to understand.”

Those popular themes also can be connected to the actions of political leaders. Oden compared the Shakespeare tragedy “Coriolanus” — which is based on the life of Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus — to conflicts in the Middle East.

“Coriolanus is the story of this superpower walking into a country and exerting its force into that country. The way it all plays out is like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the Iraq War,’” Oden said. “They just released a brand new version of ‘Coriolanus’ with all of the leading Shakespearean English actors, but the cool thing about it is they do it in modern times. … There is a lot of relevancy to Shakespeare.”

DRESS REHEARSAL: Tiffani Dorgan (left) and Mary Davis act out a scene from the Shakespeare comedy “As You Like It.” Dorgan is playing the role of lead heroine Rosalind, and Davis is playing the role of her cousin Celia. (Pioneer photos/Jonathan Eppley)

Since 1996, Ferris State University has celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday on the campus quad. Faculty, staff, students and the Big Rapids community take turns reading his more than 150 sonnets and acting scenes from his plays.

Shakespeare is believed to have been born on April 23, 1564. Each year, the event at Ferris is organized around that day.

Future festivals

Although this year’s festival only includes the performances of “As You Like It,” the group hopes to expand future festivals to include workshops on Shakespeare, visits to local schools and more.

The group officially formed in May and didn’t leave enough time as they would have liked to incorporate other events in the inaugural festival, Davis said. They plan to expand the weekend event each year to include activities that will help others better understand Shakespeare’s works.

“We’ve talked about all these grandiose ideas,” Davis said. “There really needs to be an educational side to this. Whenever you do Shakespeare, you’re educating people from all walks. You’ll have people who have never seen Shakespeare before, those who have seen Shakespeare, those who have read it in high school and those who are like, ‘I’ll go see it, but I don’t love Shakespeare.’

“We want to educate people to have a better appreciation of Shakespeare. To do that, we need to get people’s attention early on, like with kids in schools. Our ultimate goal is to do some traveling shows or performing in schools, even if its little snippets of plays, so the kids can go, ‘Oh, that makes sense now.'”

Carrying out the plan for this year’s festival was intense, but not overly difficult, because not much was required of the cast outside of learning their lines. Basic sets were constructed for the performance and costumes were rented from the Civic Theatre in Grand Rapids.

“Unlike local theaters and other venues, which have all these lights, sounds and technological things, the band shell is very bare bones and echoes back to the construction elements of basic theater,” Oden said. “If you give us a venue, we will hone it and own it. We’ll step into it and through acting, basic costumes and very basic sets, we will perform a very simplified version of ‘As You Like It.’

“Back in (Shakespeare’s) day, the Globe Theater was their Netflix, their Facebook. We live in the 21st century and we’re doing a work that’s 400 years old, which is very cool.”

 

The inaugural Big Rapids Shakespeare Festival will feature a performance of the comedy “As You Like It.” Cast members in the one-hour play include the following:

COMEDY: Scott Fransee (Adam) and Katie Blackburn (Audrey) act out a scene from the Shakespeare comedy “As You Like It.” The Big Rapids Shakespeare Festival company will perform the play four times next weekend under the Big Rapids Band Shell.

  • Tiffani Dorgan – Rosalind
  • Zachary Krebs – Orlando
  • Mary Davis – Celia
  • Tom Davis – Oliver
  • Brandon Compton – Touchstone
  • Keith Bogucki – Silvius
  • Scott Fransee – Adam
  • Anders Lu – Charles
  • Zac Dorgan – Sir Oliver Martext and Jaques De Boys
  • Tyler Easton – William
  • Ta’Shara Reynolds – Phoebe
  • Katie Blackburn – Audrey
  • Tim Halladay – Duke Frederick and Duke Senior
  • Tyler Easton – Jaques and Corin
  • Robert Dockham – Le Beau and Hymen

 

Production crew members for the festival include:

  • Rod Oden – director
  • Jeanene Westgate – properties
  • Raquel Jackmond – costume coordinator

 

 

The inaugural Big Rapids Shakespeare Festival will feature four performances of the comedy “As You Like It.” The play will be performed at the following times at the Big Rapids Band Shell behind Big Rapids Middle School.

  • 7 p.m. on Friday
  • 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.. on Saturday
  • 2 p.m. on Aug. 19

 

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Posted by Jonathan Eppley

Jonathan Eppley is news editor for the Pioneer. He designs and copy edits the Pioneer daily, and manages staff in the evening. Eppley joined the Pioneer staff in 2010. He can be reached at (231) 592-8357 or at jeppley@pioneergroup.com.

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