Bard season 

The second annual Arkansas Shakespeare Festival kicks off.

Tis that time of the year again. For the second summer in a row, the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival takes the stage in Reynolds Performance Hall in Conway for two weeks of family entertainment.

Perhaps even more than last year, this year's line-up, featuring “The Tempest,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Sound of Music” and the children's comedy “The Arkansaw Bear,” looks to appeal to a wide range of theatergoers.

Festival organizer and artistic director Matt Chiorini is most excited about “The Tempest,” Shakespeare's island comedy. “With ‘Harry Potter' and ‘Lord of the Rings' so popular, I think magic is really fun again. The play combines that with a lot of comedy and slapstick and romance.”

As for “Romeo and Juliet,” sure to be the big crowd-pleaser, Chiorini says, “People remember it as being fey and lightweight. But it's really this young and vital and dynamic play. Hopefully, people will see it in a new light.”

Look for Chiorini, a long-tenured Shakespearean actor, to make a brief appearance as Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet.” The artistic director didn't act last year, and he says, laughing, “I'm not going to be casting myself as Hamlet anytime soon. I'm not doing this for my ego.”

Last year, the festival performed the Tony award-winning “Man of La Mancha.” It continues down that path with another non-Shakespeare performance, Rodgers and Hammerstein's “The Sound of Music.” When asked if this is the festival hedging its bets, Chiorini laughs.

“Partially, but this is something a lot of Shakespeare festivals do. Not just for the audience, but for the company, so they don't get burned out on iambic pentameter. They get to flex other muscles.”

The company, like last year, is made up of professional actors from Arkansas and all across the country. Chiorini reports that many of the cast favorites from last year have returned. After the success of last year's inaugural festival — some 3,000 tickets were sold — Chiorini says that he received a lot more headshots and resumes. With a greater talent well at his disposal and because of the size of the productions, the company, which has been at work since May 12, has swollen this year from 53 to 73.

Chiorini says he's aiming to appeal more to families to broaden festival attendance. Leading up to the event, he's taken “Romeo and Juliet” on a tour of area schools and hosted Shakespeare birthday parties. To continue that same sort of interaction, following performances, the festival will offer backstage tours and Q&As with the cast.

The season kicks off on Thursday with “The Sound of Music” at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for individual performances are $25, except showings of “The Arkansaw Bear,” which are $5. Season tickets range from $24 to $60. For a complete schedule, go to arkshakes.com.

On June 24, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Michelangelo's restaurant in Conway, the festival presents the first annual Bard Ball. There'll be hors d'oeuvres, desserts, a special performance and opportunities to mix and mingle with the cast. The 2009 season will also be announced. Tickets are $30 per person or $50 for couples and are available at the performances or at the door.

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