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The play's the thing 

Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre takes on 'transformation.'

click to enlarge WINTER'S TALE, IN SUMMER: Noelle Klyce, Grant Niezgodski and Corrie Green are among the cast members for Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre's 2018 season. - ERIC WHITE
  • Eric White
  • WINTER'S TALE, IN SUMMER: Noelle Klyce, Grant Niezgodski and Corrie Green are among the cast members for Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre's 2018 season.

The play's the thing

For longer than a decade, the University of Central Arkansas has occupied center stage as the home of Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, the only professional Shakespeare company in Arkansas. This year, AST is featuring "Henry IV, Part I," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "The Winter's Tale," along with the modern classic "My Fair Lady." Seem like a strange combination? Not to AST, whose goal in recent years has been to give each season a common thread.

"Our producing artistic director, Rebekah Scallet, works very hard to give each season a theme," AST Executive Director Mary Ruth Marotte said. "This year it is 'Transformation' — the ways that our experiences shape who we are and who we become through our interactions."

Founded in 2006, Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre has seen its reach expand from an initial audience of about 2,700 people to around 8,000 last year. This year, AST anticipates as many as 400 people will come out for the opening night of "The Winter's Tale," to be performed on the lawn in front of UCA's McAlister Hall.

Outdoor theater, a la New York City's "Shakespeare in the Park," wasn't always on AST's schedule. "Before our fifth season in 2011, we decided to embrace the Arkansas heat with performances of "As You Like It" at the Hendrix Village green," Marotte said. "These outdoor performances really grew our audiences because of the laid-back nature of it. People could bring snacks and their kids, throw down a blanket — all in an atmosphere that is not at all intimidating."

AST's yearly comedy remained at Hendrix Village until 2015, but for the company's 10th anniversary — when UCA won the chance to showcase one of Shakespeare's First Folios (courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.) – AST debuted "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on the lawn in front of McAlister Hall.

"It was a wonderful move," Marotte says. "Being all in one place is the best of all possible worlds, and UCA is so good to us. Our outdoor show is unlike any other form of entertainment in Arkansas. We have art vendors selling their wares, food trucks, witty humor, beautiful costumes, stunning set design."

The stated mission of AST is "to entertain, engage and enrich the community by creating professional and accessible productions of Shakespeare and other works that promote educational opportunities, community involvement and the highest artistic standards," and the company assembles professional actors and crew members from all over the country to make that happen. But just how does AST work to make Shakespeare — a playwright whose work is over 400 years old — relevant?

"At AST, our ultimate goal is to give the audience an original Shakespearean experience while making certain that the quality of the acting, set design and costuming give life to the text," Marotte explained. "Shakespeare was really intuitive, and his texts underscore the power and importance of empathy. We've brought in Upward Bound students, kids in the Faulkner County court system, kids from the Boys and Girls Clubs, you name it. Every person, no matter their background, deals with the situations and problems we encounter in Shakespeare." Might those students need study guides and talk-backs to glean all that from the texts? Perhaps. AST provides those things, Marotte said, and this year, the company's offering a performance of "Much Ado About Nothing" especially for those with sensory deprivation disorders. At 2 p.m. Thursday, July 5, in UCA'S Reynolds Performance Hall, the one-hour family-friendly adaptation of "Ado" will also feature accommodations such as low lighting, reduced auditory stimulus and extra physical space for patrons to watch the show.

AST's headliner — "A Winter's Tale" — features 12-year-old Aidan Eslinger, who is new to AST and who sings. "He has the voice of an angel and acts like a dream," Marotte said. "It really just takes my breath away every time I see him on stage."

Catch Eslinger and the rest of the AST cast and crew June 8-July 8 on the UCA campus. Find performance times and locations at arkshakes.com/calendar.

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