Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned
As someone once said, all the world’s a stage. However, we might be bold enough to add: There are some places in the world that are a little more staged than others.
Case in point: The University of Central Arkansas, June 14-24, when UCA’s Reynolds Performance Hall plays host to what those in charge hope will be the first of an annual Arkansas Shakespeare Festival. With 12 performances over two weekends, the festival promises to be an extravaganza for theatergoers, with the fairy dust, greasepaint and tears of joy running in the gutters.
Featured this year will be a perpetual crowd pleaser, Shakespeare’s magical, hilarious and romantic “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” For a postmodern take on the Sweet Swan of Avon, “Dream” will be paired with performances of the madcap comedy “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.” If neither of those fits your taste, you can go tilting at windmills with “Man of La Mancha,” the five-time Tony Award-winning musical based on Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.”
The Arkansas Shakespeare Festival and Arkansas Shakespeare Theater — the year-round group of players that will stage the festival — are the brainchildren of producing artistic director and UCA theater professor Matt Chiorini. Born in the Bay area (as in San Francisco, not Fairfield), Chiorini got his master’s in theater at Harvard before a stint at the Moscow Arts Theater. From there, he moved on to Belmont University in Nashville, where he spent the last eight years working as an actor and director, all while running two professional theater companies.
“Of course, I’m now in Conway,” he said. “It makes perfect sense.”
But seriously folks, Chiorini said that UCA officials had been kicking around the idea of a summer festival to be headquartered in their Reynolds Performance Hall for several years. Last spring they did a national search, and Chiorini was hired to make it happen. Having played Shakespearean characters for 15 years, one of the first things he pointed out to UCA after his feet hit the ground in Conway was that — while there are Shakespeare festivals in literally 49 other states — Arkansas doesn’t have one.
Too, everybody loves the Bard.
“Having worked as an actor in several other Shakespeare festivals, I know they always draw a crowd, they’re always a lot of fun (and) family friendly,” he said. “Any preconceived fears that people have about Shakespeare really vanish quickly. It’s fun and it’s easy and as long as we put it alongside some of the great musicals or fun comedies — as we’re doing this year — it really does offer something for everybody.”
Chiorini said “ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was chosen for the inaugural year of the festival just because it’s a fun play. “Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was written specifically for a wedding feast,” he said. “So it’s a party — it’s a play that is literally a big party, onstage. It’s a great way to introduce people to Shakespeare. It’s got some great comedy, some silly romance and some real magic.”
Chiorini said that while “Man of La Mancha” will be staged “pretty traditionally,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be set in France just after World War II. Don’t expect them to hammer home the idea that it’s a semi-modern setting, however. “It’s not explicit,” he said. “It’s just a place, to ground the reality in the world. The play opens at the end of a war and it’s a period of rebirth and rejuvenation and romance. We thought that was a lot of fun, and a good place to do it. Plus, you have all this fantastic French music.”