As a 10-year-old boy, actor Ben Stevens wasn’t keen on being in a Shakespeare play. He found the whole idea quite scary.
But 20 years later, Stevens is grateful that his parents (and the merry band of actors who once lived next door to his family) persuaded him to embrace his fears, and the Bard, at an early iteration of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. His first role ever as the youthful characters Fleance and Young Duff in Macbeth, and later, as one of the twins drowned in champagne in Richard III, set Stevens on the path to a much-loved career.
“I wasn’t sold on it at first,” said Stevens, who was babysat as a boy by Annette Loiselle, one of the founders of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. “But very quickly, I couldn’t get enough. I just wanted to be there all the time.”
A childhood trajectory that saw Stevens perform in local toeholds such as A Christmas Carol and Who Has Seen the Wind has delivered the Edmonton actor once again to the Heritage Amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park. There, he assumes the role of Valentine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, playing in repertory with A Winter’s Tale, starting June 18.
Directed by Kevin Sutley, The Two Gentlemen of Verona can be seen on even dates. A Winter’s Tale, directed by Dave Horak, appears on odd dates. Check the festival’s website for full details.
In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a comedy, Valentine sets off to explore the world, leaving his best friend, the lovesick Proteus, behind. But Valentine also finds his heart on the line and must make a choice.
“There are women dressing up as men, and mistaken identities, and lots of ridiculous mistakes,” said Stevens. “It’s great.”
In A Winter’s Tale, classified as a comedy but often seen as a romance, Stevens plays two roles. One is a clown — a foolish shepherd organizing the annual sheep shearing festival. The other role is Cleomenes, who is sent on a mission to determine whether the king’s wife is sleeping with his best friend (who agrees to this sort of thing? It can only go badly.)
“Both plays have more than just one genre in them,” said Stevens. “Two Gentlemen takes some dramatic turns and A Winter’s Tale takes some comedic turns as well. They are quite a neat mix.”
Stevens speaks of the 31st annual festival (where he makes his sixth appearance this summer) with unabashed enthusiasm and an inspiring facility with the work. His comfort level may be born, in part, of the seven years he has been a member of Thou Art Here, an alternative Shakespeare company that adapts the playwright’s work to make it more accessible to modern folk.
Every year at the festival, Thou Art Here puts on two 15-minute puppet shows based on the featured plays in the 1,100-seat amphitheatre. Though ostensibly geared towards children, many an adult has found the primer helpful.
Puppet shows are free with your ticket, and run on preview nights, opening nights, plus Tuesdays, Saturdays (both the evening and matinee shows) and at the Sunday matinees. The puppet performances start a half-hour before the main stage showsat roughly 1:30 p.m. for matinees and 7:30 p.m. for the evening shows.
A quick glance at the weather over the next month — the festival runs until July 14 — looks remarkably hopeful, but Stevens doesn’t worry about the wind and rain that has marred previous years.
“With this festival comes the weather, but also the beautiful view, the sunset, the sounds of nature, and a full, seated venue and a giant stage and a beautiful tent to keep the rain off you,” he said. “And if there is thunder and lightning, on the tragedy night in particular, it’s a wonderful thing.
“I like to think it takes you back to the old Elizabethan theatre, because the old Globe was open air. And to me, it gives that feeling of how Shakespeare was meant to be seen.”
Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare
Theatre: Freewill Shakespeare Festival
Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park
Running: June 18 to July 14, in repertory
Tickets: Starting at $25, children under 10 free. For information, call 780-425-8086 or visit freewillshakespeare.com.
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