Donald Munro

Lots of life comes from marking Shakespeare’s death

How Shakespeare gets passed on through the ages

The Motley Fools is a local Shakespearean group celebrating the 400th year of William Shakespeare's death by performing at various events this month.
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The Motley Fools is a local Shakespearean group celebrating the 400th year of William Shakespeare's death by performing at various events this month.

Four centuries ago, Shakespeare died.

But don’t look for grand and stirring words from me today about his impact on the world. Books and careers have been devoted to that subject. Anything I could say would be but a walking shadow of all that has been proclaimed before.

Instead, I’m going to spend the column inches allotted to the 400-year-anniversary of Shakespeare’s death telling you how tickled I am at the way the Fresno-area theater community is marking it.

Rather than a top-down, organizational-driven program of events for the month of April (the Bard died April 23, 1616), the Fresno celebration came about organically. The program wasn’t etched in stone months ago. (Some of it was still coming together days ago.) It’s almost like improv theater, except on a communitywide level.

A month honoring Shakespeare wouldn’t be complete without actual performances of his work, of course, and scrappy little Theatre Ventoux is obliging with an audacious plan (opening Thursday, April 14) to present “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet” in alternating repertory performances, with the same players in each.

But most of the events are on the much-less traditional side. (And don’t think that Ventoux’s offering, under the direction of the rascally Greg Taber, is going to be “traditional.” But more on that in a moment.)

The month’s program includes a “24 Hour Play Fest,” which gives playwrights 12 hours to write a 10-minute play after getting a Shakespearean theme as a prompt, then 12 hours to rehearse it with their casts. Getting in on the adult-coloring craze, there’s a chance to color scenes from Shakespeare’s plays while watching the movie “Strange Brew.” (Did you know it’s based on elements of “Hamlet”?)

There’s even a fascinating sounding event called “Shakespeare in the Dark,” in which audience members will be escorted into a very dark space, put on blindfolds and listen to passages from plays that were meant to be heard in the dark (the porter in “Hamlet,” the death-bed scene in “Othello,” etc.)

Haley White, a member of The New Ensemble theater company, got things started on Facebook with a fellow group of thespians, including Heather Parish, Brooke Aiello and Kristin Lyn Crase. They formed an ad hoc group called The Motley Fools and invited others to join them. There are now 60 members.

Last Sunday, the first “official” event of this informal month was held at Inspiration Park. At the Bard’s Boot Camp, audience members were treated to excerpts from “Twelfth Night.”

No upper-crust, get-gussied-up celebration of Shakespeare here: Kids played with balloon-animal swords, learned stage combat and received tips on hurling Shakespearean insults.

Through it all, White indulged in her love of Shakespeare with one of her favorite plays.

“I seriously would be interested in playing every single part in ‘Twelfth Night,’ ” she says.

A challenge times two

That passion for the Bard manifests itself in different ways.

I walk into California Arts Academy last week to talk with Kayla Weber, 21, and Broderic Beard, 23, who play the title roles in Theatre Ventoux’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Before I proceed, let me go on the record stating I think what they’re doing is a little insane. But in a good way. Not only are they tackling these two iconic roles in a bare-bones, intimate production of the classic, they’re also playing Hamlet and Ophelia in “Hamlet” in alternating performances.

Such is the intensity of youth.

“Time management is the way to sort out the two roles,” says Weber, who has appeared in such shows as Theatre Ventoux’s “Antigone” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Good Company Players. “They’re such different characters. I don’t have any problem sorting it out. But it’s definitely a big project.”

The biggest line load, however, goes to Beard, a mainstay of recent Ventoux productions and a frequent performer at Woodward Shakespeare Festival (and will be directing the unrelated production of “Hamlet” there this summer.) Tackling the role of Hamlet alone is a career zenith for many actors. Adding Romeo to the mix – perhaps even on the same day – gets into marathon territory.

But Beard seems remarkably unperturbed by the challenge. He knows both plays backward and forward. He’s ready.

Like I say: youthful intensity.

Greg Taber, artistic director of Theatre Ventoux, has stripped both plays down to the bare bones, eliminating characters and threads of storyline. He did much the same thing in a 2014 production of “Macbeth” at Woodward Shakespeare.

Taber likes a challenge. (As he puts it: These plays have been done, ahem, many times before, so he might well put his own stamp on them.) So he’s come up with an angle to get even more attention for his two productions. During the course of the two-weekend run, matinees on both Saturdays will be “audience choice performances.” If you’re there by 1:45 p.m., you’ll be able to vote for which show you want to see that afternoon: either “Romeo and Juliet” or “Hamlet.” The actors will have about 10 minutes to prepare.

“It’s definitely the biggest thing we’ve ever bitten off,” Taber says cheerfully.

Ink for Will

What else sounds intriguing to me on the April Shakespeare program? Lots. You can attend a class to write your own sonnet. There’s a Shakespeare Pub Quiz. A game show-style event lets you help pick Worst Parent, Best Dead Heroine, Best Sidekick and more in his plays. A Fresno Pacific University production titled “Dark as Night” explores the “shadowy” side of Shakespeare.

As a musical theater fan, I’m glad to know about “#yayhamlet,” an evening devoted to songs from shows inspired by Shakespeare plays such as “Kiss Me Kate,” “West Side Story” and “All Shook Up.”

Again, no one individual sat down and planned all these events. They just sprang up, crowdsourcing-style.

For White, who grew up in Corcoran and returned to Fresno after earning a theater-arts degree from California Lutheran University, this month is a chance to indulge in the Bard without having to commit the time to a full production. (Her schedule is tight because of family obligations.)

How can a guy who died 400 years ago still have such an impact on someone like White – and an entire theater community?

“I love that his characters are all flawed and human,” she says. There are so many different ways you can take them. I think anyone who has played a Shakespearean role can go back and play it an entirely different way.”

White bears physical proof of her Shakespearean crush. On the inside of left ankle, a tattoo reads “Act 1 Scene 3,” a reference to the “To thine own self be true” speech from “Hamlet.” On her left arm, another tattoo with the words “Thinking makes it so,” another “Hamlet” reference.

Perhaps one more event can be squeezed onto the schedule: Shakespeare as Body Art.

April Shakespeare events

  • “24 Hour Play Fest,” 7 p.m. Sunday, April 10, The Voice Shop, 1296 N. Wishon Ave. Admission is pay what you can. Ten-minute plays will be written and rehearsed in a 24-hour period. For information on participating as a writer, director, or actor, email info@shakespeareanfresno.com.
  • “Shorts and Stuff,” 7 p.m. Monday, April 11, Woodward Park Regional Library, 944 E. Perrin Ave. Free. Presented by The Motley Fools. Short plays, monologues, songs, commentary. And who knows what else?
  • “Write your Own Sonnet,” 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 12. Presented by Poetry Place and Write Mindful, 171 N. Van Ness Ave. $15. RSVP on Facebook.
  • “Coloring for Groundlings and Movie Night,” 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, Peeve’s Public House, 1243 Fulton Mall. Free. Color while watching “Strange Brew.”
  • “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet” in repertory, Thursday, April 14-Saturday, April 23, Fresno Soap Co. 1470 N. Van Ness Ave. Pay what you can. www.theatreventoux.net.
  • “Dark as Night,” 8 p.m. Friday, April 15 and Saturday, April 16, Fresno Pacific University Theater Lab/Kriegbaum Hall. www.fresno.edu. Free. Devised works are student created and performed under the direction of Brooke Aiello.
  • “#yayhamlet,” 8 p.m. Monday, April 18, Holy Family Episcopal Church, 1135 E Alluvial Ave. Free Presented by The Motley Fools. Selections of songs from Shakespeare-inspired musicals.
  • “Shakespeare Pub Quiz,” 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, Peeve’s Public House, 1243 Fulton Mall. Entry is free.
  • “Shakespeare Short Film Fest,” 6 p.m. Thursday, April 21, Community Media Access Collaborative, 1555 Van Ness Ave.
  • “Best and Worst of The Bard!,” 2 p.m. Saturday, April 23, Betty Rodriguez Regional Library, 3040 N. Cedar Ave. Free. A game-show format presented by The Motley Fools. “Best and Worst of The Bard!”, presented by The Motley Fools.
  • “The King of Infinite Space” 2 p.m. Sunday, April 24, Central Library, 2420 Mariposa St. Free. An informal reading of Andrew Ordover’s 1989 darkly ritualistic play presented by The Motley Fools.
  • “Shakespeare in the Dark,” 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 26, Hart’s Haven, 950 N. Van Ness Ave. $5. Presented by The Motley Fools. Explore the aural aspects of Shakespeare’s poetry by listening to his genius through only the voice of talented actors. $5 entry fee.
  • “WSF Season 12 Preview,” 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, Woodward Park Regional Library, 944 E. Perrin Ave. Free. Presented by the Woodward Shakespeare Festival.
  • Celebration Party, 7 p.m. Thursday, April 28, Hart’s Haven, 950 N. Van Ness Ave. Free. Join The Motley Fools and the community for one final HUZZAH!
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