Shakespeare inspires summer play program

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ExitStageLeft and Graffiti Theatre will satisfy thirsty fans of the stage this summer with presentation of two original works at a custom-built outdoor venue. 

The team behind the gender-bending Taming of the Shrew and musicals Beauty and the Beast and Rent will feature a pared-down, COVID-friendly program inspired by Shakespeare in two weekly runs beginning on Wednesday, Aug. 18. Lend Me Your Ears by venerated stage actor Scott Hylands alternates with Besse’s Will, a new play by actor, director and teacher Jeffrey Renn. 

ExitStageLeft co-founders Christina Penhale and Jekka Mack had hoped to return their tradition of epic live theatre with a massive community production of Pericles, but many of the organizations were not operating during the pandemic and group restrictions were still in flux as of May. The company settled on a repertory program featuring their principal members, plus one very special guest in Hylands. 

“Being able to do something, even on a smaller scale, was important to keep our momentum and our presence in the community,” Penhale said. “And we’ve had people all the way through the pandemic saying, ‘What’s happening? When are you going to do the next show?’”

“Everyone we’ve talked to is so excited that something live is actually happening,” Mack said. 

This summer marks the sixth consecutive year the company has produced a Shakespeare play or related work outdoors. Renn noted exitStageLeft has aimed to lift the calibre of performance every year, and as a mentor he has encouraged Penhale and Mack to take on new challenges. 

“Bringing in Scott is a way to help us see mastery in the craft and help us to lift our game, too, to meet it,” Renn said. 

Hylands created Lend me Your Ears in 2002 when he was 60 and living for a time in Toronto. He recalls the city being a “zoo” that summer with an upcoming visit from the Pope, so it was hard to get in to any venues. He passed his time by picking up a used copy of the complete works of Shakespeare and drafting his own one-man show.

The original production of Lend Me Your Ears featured 17 selections of sonnets, songs and soliloquies, in an arrangement “reflecting a progression from youth to maturity to old age.”

Hylands toured the piece in community halls across the Gulf Islands during the “dead of winter” in early 2003, and despite the timing managed to attract healthy audiences. 

Two shows performed at ArtSpring in February 2003 were met with a “roar of applause and standing ovations,” according to the Driftwood and led to a reprise later that summer. 

In a newly updated version, Hylands still addresses the full array of questions and philosophies that follow human beings throughout their lives, but ties the relevant Shakespeare pieces together with a new narrative thread related to his own career on the stage. 

“I bashed away at it and it became leaner and leaner,” Hylands said, noting the list of selections is down to 12 and there have been a few replacements. “It’s not this old saw we’re bringing out; it’s a brand new effort with brand new muscles, in a way.” 

Hylands observed exitStageLeft is performing in pandemic times, just as Shakespeare’s company often was. Being on the move outside of the big cities, they were limited in costuming and props. 

“They were minimalists and our whole take is minimalist, too,” Hylands said. “All you can do is elicit the audience’s imagination — then and now. We’re relying entirely on the Bard’s poetry, and he’s been successful so far.”

Hylands does have the benefit of live musical accompaniment by Mack, who will be performing some sonnets and songs as well as sound effects. Instruments include guitar, ukelele, drum, wind machine and steel sheet.

“There are some really beautiful melodies that people have written and added to the sonnets, so we’ve picked some of those that we like, and there’s a couple of more contemporary pieces in there as well that fit the theme of what Scott’s talking about at the time,” Mack said. 

Besse’s Will grew in part out of a revue of Shakespeare’s love-themed writing that ArtSpring executive director Cicela Månsson commissioned from Renn and Penhale for the pandemic season, but which they never got to perform. They will instead appear together in Renn’s new two-hander portraying an imagined conversation between Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I. 

Although there are no historical records documenting any meeting between them, Renn said Elizabeth I and Shakespeare are known to have attended the same wedding in Southampton around 1594, at a time when the theatres were closed because of plague. The playwright’s work took a distinct turn after that.

“The idea for me has always been, ‘What happened during that conversation when Shakespeare and Elizabeth were alone together? What did she say to him?’” Renn explained. “Because if we look at his plays before that event, they’re sort of histories and they’re on the back of Marlowe’s writing … until he comes to Comedy of Errors, and Comedy of Errors is this explosion of him announcing his own genius. It’s the first existential moment in writing.”

Renn said that introspection made room for Hamlet and all of Shakespeare’s other classic plays, and indeed helped shaped modern thought ever since. 

“I’m purporting that Elizabeth put Shakespeare up to writing his next group of plays because whatever happened in that meeting, she said something to him that changed him as a writer, that made him all of a sudden start to examine the inner spiritual life of men.”

The two plays run on alternating nights Aug. 18 through 22 and Aug. 25 through 29, opening with Lend me Your Ears and Closing with Besse’s Will.

Performances are taking place outside at a private location close to Ganges dubbed Bard Owl Theatre. Tickets are advance purchase only. Audience members are asked to bring their own blanket or chairs and to arrive at least 15 minutes early to reach the location from the parking area. Masks are by preference, and there will be communicable disease protocols in place. 

See the company’s website at www.exitstageleftproductions.com for more information and to purchase tickets. 

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