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Performing Arts

Former DHS thespians perform Shakespeare in open air

James Ranch to host ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

The famous grass-fed cattle of north Durango’s James Ranch will have to step aside this weekend and next. Tonight, Merely Players opens a production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” on the ranch’s terraces.

It’s a minor inconvenience for the herd, but it’s a huge challenge to the adventuresome company headed by Mona Wood-Patterson and Charles Ford.

“Knowing our interest in found spaces, more than a year ago, the ranch called us,” Wood-Patterson said in a telephone interview.

“We had already booked a downtown space last summer for ‘The 39 Steps,’ but we certainly considered it for this year.”

So it will be Shakespeare – under the stars, or as the sun sets, or possibly in the rain – in the Animas Valley.

“Dress appropriately; it gets cool in the evening,” Wood-Patterson said. “But no umbrellas – they block the view.”

A newly built stage will be surrounded on three sides by the audience, Wood-Patterson said. Three seating options are available. On the grass close to the stage is “a good option for families, but bring blankets.” Some chairs will be provided by the company, or guests can bring their own chairs. Reservations are recommended to reserve a spot.

Ford and his technical crew have built a stage with a set to suggest an estate where one of Shakespeare’s most tangled love plots will unfurl. Costuming by the inimitable JoAnn Nevils will be a fanciful mix of periods with a denim through-line. “We’re in the West,” said Wood-Patterson, who has creatively compressed a standard 20-member cast to six actors, four of whom will play multiple parts.

Ranging in age from 20 to 26, all the cast members have graduated or are near graduation in theater arts programs around the country. They also are alumni of Wood-Patterson’s award-winning Durango High School drama program.

Elizabeth Gray and Misha Fristensky will portray Beatrice and Benedick, lovers with enough friction to start more than one fire in the barn. The other four actors will play many roles. Landon Newton will portray Don Pedro, his brother Antonio and a sexton, juggling voices and characterizations throughout. Austin Hohnke plays the young lover Claudio and the old Friar – the monk who marries Claudio and his bride – plus various courtiers, Margaret and two of the mechanicals, Shakespeare’s comic relief.

Dogberry, erstwhile leader of the odd squad, will be brought to life by Joey Panelli, who is completing his studies in comedy theater, writing and improv in Chicago. Panelli also plays Leonato, Ursula and two watchmen. Naomi Rodri portrays Hero, the bereft heroine, as well as Borachio and a messenger.

“Much Ado” will run for just two weekends.

jreynolds@durangoherald.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.

Finding found spaces

From its beginning, Merely Players has experimented with found spaces.

Performing in something other than a traditional theater is a modern phenomenon. The intention is to create a different experience for actors and audience.

Usually, spaces are chosen to resemble or evoke the imaginary setting of a play – a parking lot, a jail, an upscale boardroom or even a palace garden.

More than a decade ago, Mona Wood-Patterson and Charles Ford chose the Chapman Hill warming hut to mount David Mamet’s gritty tale of sibling rivalry. “True West” is a play about two brothers who sort out old wounds and trash a motel. At Chapman Hill, it became all too real.

Another Merely Players production, “Neglect,” a two-character play, transformed the Powerhouse boiler room into a Chicago apartment during a heat wave.

A contemporary retelling of Greek myths, “Metamorphoses,” by Mary Zimmerman, took place under a Plexiglas dome covering a motel swimming pool. And last summer, “The 39 Steps” unspooled a frenetic mystery-farce in a downtown warehouse. Ford had to build a complicated set and stadium seating for the audience.

To say this is creative theater is an understatement. Change the venue. Change the audience’s experience.

I’ll never forget Cody Burke cooking a real meal on a real stove in “True West.” Marc Arbeeny as King Neptune ruled over a concrete swimming pool as if it were his empire. Maureen May and Landon Newton sweated out a brutal Midwest summer in a gritty, pipe-filled apartment-cum-boiler room.

And Merely Players continues to surprise us. The Players now have created an imaginary European estate out at the James Ranch. Don Pedro never welcomed his guests to such a beautiful valley.

May the rains not come.

Judith Reynolds

If you go

“Much Ado about Nothing,” a comedy by William Shakespeare, performed by Merely Players, directed by Mona Wood-Patterson, 7:30 p.m. June 19, 20, 23-26, The James Ranch Terraces, 10 miles north of Durango at 33846 U.S. Highway 550. Plenty of free parking. Available dinner packages include a pre-performance talk with After Words concluding some performances. Tickets: $24 show only; $40 meal and show. For info, call 247-7657 or visit www.durangoconcerts.com or www.merelyplayers.us.

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