It was not until several years after the death of Shakespeare that a group of his fellow actors put together and published a collection of his plays (the First Folio) in the hopes that they would survive well beyond Shakespeare himself. For it seems there has never been a doubt that the work of William Shakespeare would transcend time and place, eventually to travel across the ocean, through hallowed ivy halls, and down backstreet alleys to become a staple of summer in Montana. Just as Shakespeare’s Chamberlain’s Men spent their summers touring the English countryside, bringing both raucous and thoughtful entertainment to those outside the London hotbed of theater, so too does the company of Shakespeare in the Parks bring outstanding theatrical service to the lightly populated mountain states.
For the 28th summer in a row, this professional company based at Montana State University is traveling through Montana, as well as parts of Wyoming and Idaho, to bring live theater to the otherwise deprived rurality of the West. And people just can’t get enough. They will be performing in 51 communities, doing over 60 performances. This year the program, which Missoula will see all of, includes Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing. Both comedies, the plays range in tone from the sometimes tragic moral dilemmas of Measure to the edgy bantering of would-be lovers in Ado.
Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, though often it is pointed to as one of his more masterful. This particular version is set in London in the early 19th century. The story is one that explores political motivation and exploitation, moral hypocrisy, and loyalty. The “problem,” as Shakespeare’s morality plays are referred to, is set up when Duke Vincento, the city’s political leader, decides to test his deputy Angelo in a time of rampant immorality in the city. The Duke declares that he is going to take reprieve from the city and go to Poland, while Angelo is to restore order to it. Unbeknownst to anyone, however, the Duke is not off to Poland but rather he has disguised himself as a friar in order to see how Angelo responds to his new responsibility.
And of course he doesn’t respond well. Angelo’s first act is to sentence Claudio to death for impregnating his fiancee Juliet before they are married. As if that wasn’t a tad severe, Angelo then proceeds to bribe Claudio’s religious sister Isabella who has gone to beg for Claudio’s life. He will pardon Claudio if she will spend the night with him. Anyway, Isabella’s not sure her brother is worth the sacrifice, but the Duke, disguised as the friar, convinces her that she should agree and then have Mariana, Angelo’s old flame, take her place at the last moment. In the end, there are three (more or less) happy couples, and no one dies. Not so bad, for all the trouble involved.
In Much Ado About Nothing, the love lives of the characters seem to be much more straightforward. When Don Pedro and his men return from battle to the city of Messina, one of the soldiers, Claudio, falls in love at first sight with the governor’s daughter Hero. Her sister Beatrice is the confirmed bachelorette to Benedick’s confirmed bachelor; they toss around witty insults until it becomes obvious to everyone around them, though they themselves remain oblivious, that they are in love. The expected turn of events (marriage all around), however, is threatened by Claudio’s evil brother Don John who seeks to ruin his brother’s happiness by proving Hero to be less than virtuous (which of course she’s not). As the title suggests, however, things get tidily resolved into the nice light fluff of a summer flick. Only with brilliant dialogue and outrageous characters.
From the stomach turning injustices of Measure for Measure to the hilarious interactions of Much Ado About Nothing, everyone, as in the days of the Globe Theater when audiences consisted of as many members of the aristocracy as prostitutes, is sure to find something to please the mind and soul. The comic mix of Shakespeare in the Parks’ two-day program is enough to give a tasty summer sampling of the Bard, but unfortunately not enough to fill the oft-lacking theater culture of Missoula. Given the desperation with which people seem to flock to the performances, merlot and brie in hand, you might want to get there on the early side of things in order to appreciate the exquisite work that these modern-day traveling actors do.
The Shakespeare in the Parks Company will perform Measure for Measure on Wednesday, Aug. 23, and Much Ado About Nothing on Thursday, Aug. 24. Both performances will take place at the University of Montana Oval and begin at 6 p.m. Admission is free, but please bring a non-perishable food item for US West’s food drive.