Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is always looking for new ways to connect with audiences.
The plays are performed outside, after all, in scenic green spaces around the state and region, whether in small towns or larger cities. Beyond that, they look for other ways to remain faithful to the timeless words while finding novel approaches that will connect with the audience.
"We're always trying to identify ways in which we are not producing Shakespeare a museum piece, but rather looking at how he is relevant today and looking at ways in which we can further engage our audiences to find his material exciting and important to the issues that we live by today," said Kevin Asselin, the Bozeman-based group's executive director.
This year, they're presenting "Henry IV, Part I," with costumes and sets from the World War I era.
Asselin said that while he was reading the script, set in wartime, he noted the issues of "honor and loyalty, and finding lawfulness in an unlawful world." He noticed, too, that the centennial marking the end of WWI had just passed, and this might be a way to pay tribute to the state's veterans. Montana had more servicemen and women per capita than any other state during that conflict, and to this day has a high number of veterans relative to its population.
"I wanted to honor the veteran population that we have in Montana and the history of how men and women in our state, our communities take the idea of serving and what honor and loyalty means to them is quite impressive," he said.
The tour, which crisscrosses Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington, is stopping in Missoula next week. Its usual location on the Oval at the University of Montana is unavailable because of Monday's convocation to welcome back students.
Instead, they've moved to the East Riverbowl, the greenway between the Kim Williams Trail and Campus Drive, across from Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Asselin hopes people note the change, as Missoula is always one of its biggest stops. Not only do they perform both plays here (some towns only get one), but they typically see between 800 and 1,000 people. Thus far, they've been spared from any heavy wildfire smoke, but Asselin said that even in the heavy fire year of 2017, they had a relatively impressive turn-out in Missoula.
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Asselin is directing "Henry IV," while guest director Marti Lyons is directing the comedy, "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
Lyons, who is based in Chicago, has a growing reputation in the theater world, with positive reviews from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Reader.
In "Merry Wives," Lord Falstaff tries to manipulate two women, who turn the tables on him. Lyons had the idea to move its setting and costumes to the 1960s to create a parallel with the burgeoning women's movement and the contemporary MeToo era.
"She was drawn into the '60s because of the more domestic ideas and struggles that were evident," he said.
Now how does that square with the play being a comedy? he asked. "How do we bring these issues to light without losing touch with the comedic aspects of Shakespeare's play, and I think she finds a pretty good marriage between those two. And she ends the play in a really interesting way that I think is thought-provoking for our audiences and highlights a number of themes throughout the play while also maintaining a lot of the comedic gems that 'Merry Wives' presents," he said.
The period-era costumes and Falstaff's portrayal as Marlon Brando, "Rebel Without A Cause" biker character, help underscore the shift in time.
The cast is hand-picked from hundreds of actors across the country for their limited number of slots.
"They want to come to Montana and experience Shakespeare in these rural communities," he said.
This year's is one of the most diverse the theater has had yet.
"I think it's important for the diversity we have in Montana to see themselves reflected on stage ... and equally important for us to have a safe and open conversation about diversity through the form of the arts," he said.