The Bard’s new face

Shakespeare in Chico: the next chapter

WHERE DA’ CAPULETS?<br> While the lady is away, Mercurio, Romeo and Benvolio bro down as they wait for the curtains to come up for Shakespeare 2009. From left: Matt Hammons, Benjamin Day and Tyler Elliott.

While the lady is away, Mercurio, Romeo and Benvolio bro down as they wait for the curtains to come up for Shakespeare 2009. From left: Matt Hammons, Benjamin Day and Tyler Elliott.

Photo By Alan Sheckter

“This is Shakespeare, indoors and air-conditioned,” said longtime Shakespeare in the Park artistic director Jerry Miller regarding the troupe’s latest move, this time from Chico City Plaza to the Chico Women’s Club.

Shakespeare 2009, as it has been dubbed for its 20th anniversary season, will come and go pretty quickly, with a classic version of Romeo and Juliet being staged July 9-12, and an equally short run of The Trials of Zorro set for July 16-19. Each show will feature two matinees, a first for the company.

The story of Shakespeare’s venue changes is almost as interesting as its pending productions. In 2007, Shakespeare in the Park’s relocation to downtown City Plaza from its 17-year home in Bidwell Park, first at the Campfire Council Ring and then at Cedar Grove, was a planned move. Working with the city of Chico, Miller was happy to create quality live theater in the newly remodeled City Plaza.

In its first year, Shakespeare on the Plaza won the 2007 Mayor’s Award for outstanding contribution to Chico, as well as the 2007 Annie Award for Best Theatre Production for The Black Bird Sings.

The 2008 season was somewhat star-crossed, with smoke from wildfires canceling some performances and forcing others to be quickly adapted for the El Rey Theatre stage.

This year’s move, to Chico Women’s Club, was entirely unplanned. Miller missed the deadline for city arts grant applications by one day. In the past, the city of Chico gifted Shakespeare between $10,000 and $18,000 each year, more than half its budget, to offset costs for insurance, costumes, sets, lights, audio, paint, musicians and promotions. “A day late, 10,000 short, and that was pretty much the end of the project,” he said.

It was then that Chico Women’s Club, with its controlled environment and permanent stage, came into the picture—and a revised, compressed Shakespeare run was born.

“They have just been really, exceedingly helpful,” Miller said.

There are several advantages to the 150-or-so-capacity venue. The Women’s Club is bug- and skateboard-free, doesn’t sizzle like a pizza oven, and actors won’t have to pause to allow a loud motorcycle to pass. In addition, Miller said stage lights will be much more effective than on the Plaza, which had plenty of daylight left at 7:30 p.m. (starting time was 8 p.m. at Bidwell Park).

Regarding the plays, Romeo and Juliet director Jeff Dickenson said the Shakespeare love story will be presented in its traditional, Elizabethan splendor. And Dickenson’s directions—this is his first role as a Shakespeare director after being an on-stage regular for many years—involve packing as much of that splendor as possible onto the Chico Women’s Club stage, including the construction of large set units that can be rolled in and out.

“There’s a Verona (Italy) feel, but it’s more suggestive; we’re not creating it realistically,” said Dickenson, who is also Chico Cabaret’s company director. “It’s an enormously complicated play to direct, with seven locations. … I tried to blend as many elements as possible in the Women’s Club.”

Chico State theater major Ashley Mauerhan, who’s appeared in many area productions, including Shakespeare on the Plaza, will play Juliet. Benjamin Day, a Chico State sophomore-to-be whom Dickenson called “a fresh-faced kid who was a complete surprise during auditions,” will appear as Romeo.

The Trials of Zorro, written and directed by Miller, with musical direction from Marcel Daguerre, promises to offer a new and different take on the swashbuckling swordsman. The play takes place in a small California town following the Gold Rush.

The question of who will play Zorro is not easy to answer: “I can’t tell you that; you don’t know who Zorro is,” Miller said. “The identity of Zorro is a complex and serious part of the play.”

A live band—including Daguerre, Miller’s son Loki Miller, Charles Mohnike and Jonathan Stoyanoff—will augment the show with familiar pop and rock songs. The longtime partnership with the Butte College Drama Department, of which Miller and Dickenson are instructors, continues.

As for next year, who knows, Shakespeare might be performed in the new Butte College Performing Arts Center. But for now, it’s Shakespeare in the Women’s Club.

“We’re not mad at the city; they made their choice, and that’s OK,” Miller said. “We’re not crying about it. We’re going to put on two great shows and things will evolve; they always do.”