As a new initiative to perform timeless theatrical works in a familiar outdoor setting, Shakespeare in the Park makes its debut at Oglebay this week.
In collaboration with the Oglebay Foundation, the Independent Theatre Collective is mounting a production of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at Anne Kuchinka Amphitheatre. Four free performances are set for 7 p.m. on Thursdays, beginning June 26 and continuing on July 10, July 24 and Aug. 7. In the event of inclement weather, a rain site will be designated.
Wheeling playwright Jeremy F. Richter, founder and artistic director of the Independent Theatre Collective, said Eriks Janelsins, executive director of the Oglebay Foundation, approached him last November with the idea of bringing theatrical performances back to the park. Richter responded enthusiastically and asked, "When can we get started?"
Richter, whose original plays have been performed in New York, Pittsburgh and other venues, commented, "We've not produced locally in over three years, and had just begun itching to get back in the game here at home. Having this opportunity to partner with the Oglebay Foundation, and being outside on the amphitheater stage has been a wonderful experience. We're hopeful that everyone is as excited and pleased with the production as we are so that this might become an annual offering."
John Reilly, well known to area audiences as an actor and director, is directing the production. The retired professor of theater at West Liberty University said the play has a cast of 12, including a dog - a very large dog - typecast in the role of, well, a dog.
Reilly, who has extensive experience with Shakespearean works, said that in choosing a play for the summer series, they rejected "A Midsummer Night's Dream" because "it gets done to death" and "Measure for Measure" as being "too heavy," but thought the comedy of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" fit the bill. It is one of the Bard's earliest plays, and "you can tell he's writing for specialty actors," Reilly added.
"The play could be much darker than it is. But we're very much aware that it is a summer play. We're trying to keep it light-hearted," Reilly explained. "Two Gentlemen" will be performed in its entirety, with "selective cutting," he said.
Richter said Reilly "gets the credit for everything happening on stage and with this group." Richter remarked, "Every evening, the moments I get to catch (I'm typically under the stage assisting with set construction), the cast seems to be having such a great time working together. It's going to be a very funny play.
"Each actor brings a different kind of comedy or humor to the set - and they just play. That's what it feels like - a group of focused, dedicated performers looking forward to playing together," Richter observed. "And John is just the perfect director for such an atmosphere. He has a deep understanding and appreciation of the text, and a natural sense of what it takes to make an actor comfortable, which allows our cast to take risks in their performances."
Chris Jarrett, ITC's resident technical director, has designed "a m0assive, yet flexible (and fun!) set that fits into John's vision of the show. We're harkening back to classical design, as well, by using periaktoi for our entire set," Richter said. A periaktoi is a three-sided, revolving theatrical device used for changes of scene.
"We've had help from many in the theater community in tackling this part of the project," Richter said. Those assisting with the project include P.D. Gregg, Don Pollack and Martha Wright. Spencer Thomas and Nathan Dunn are the stage managers.
"In a nutshell, everything about this production and process has been about Collaboration. With a capital C- and that rhymes with G - and that stands for Gents. Two Gents," the producer quipped.
Members of the cast include Brendan Sheehan of Wheeling in the role of Proteus, a gentleman of Verona; Cassandra Hackbart, a West Liberty graduate from Preston County, as Julia, beloved of Proteus; and Wheeling newcomer Dana Applegate, who is handling three smaller roles.
In an interview with the three actors, Reilly said, "Each has had extensive theater background, but never worked together. That is incredibly exciting ... Everybody brings a different set of experiences, but it's all pretty much developed."
Sheehan, who became involved in theater at Wheeling Park High School, is set to graduate in the fall from West Virginia University with a degree in theater. He has performed in "Julius Caesar," "Twelfth Night" and an experimental production of "Macbeth" at WVU.
"I have really enjoyed working with John as a director. He has a very different perspective on Shakespeare than what I've had in the past," Sheehan said.
Hackbart, whose theatrical experience also began in high school, graduated from West Liberty last December with an interdisciplinary studies major in music and theater. She participated in the Stella Adler Studio of Acting's summer program in New York City in 2012. She plans to return to New York in October to take classes in sketch comedy and improvisation at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
"It's my first Shakespeare production ever. It's my first production working with a lot of brand-new people. I feel that the ensemble work is very solid," Hackbart said.
Applegate moved to the area last August from Panama, where she founded and ran a community theater in a mountainous village that is a top destination for retirees from the United States and Canada. She studied theater at the University of Alabama and worked in other community theaters.
Since her arrival in Wheeling, Applegate has appeared in a Christmas show at Oglebay Institute's Towngate Theatre and participated in the Towngate Children's Theatre tour. "I am really impressed with how much theater there is in the area and how professional it is," she commented.
Regarding the "Two Gents" experience, Applegate said, "I am loving it. I'm the oldest person in the cast. I'm not used to that - I came from a retirement community." She added, "John's really great as a director. He knows Shakespeare really, really well. He gives you insights that you might not know."
Other members of the cast are Woody Pond as Valentine, a gentleman of Verona; Nathaniel Foster; Justin Swoyer; Isa Campbell; Karissa Martin; Joshua Fromhart; Liz Richter; Vincent Marshall and a mastiff named Giles.