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Behind the scenes at Shakespeare in the Grove

Breezes are bad. So are the nearby sirens from the fire department. And rain? Forget it.

Those are some of the challenges of the Tidewater Community College Theatre’s “Shakespeare in the Grove” – now in its 17th year. But the show must go on, as TCC Theatre brings Hamlet to the stage, with performances June 27-30 and July 1 at the Chesapeake Campus’ outdoor theater on the corner of Cedar and Bells Mill roads. All performances are free and at 8 p.m.

“One of the biggest challenges is always the weather,” said Ed Jacob, director of TCC Theatre and associate professor of theatre and speech – and as if right on cue, it starts to sprinkle. The show doesn’t go on if lightning is present, but sirens from the fire department on Cedar Road call for a more creative solution. “We dim the lights and the actors freeze,” Jacob says.

Once the noise pollution passes, the play continues.

Twenty actors that include current and former students comprise the cast and crew that have six weeks to deliver a two-hour production, which has become a well-attended community event.

No microphones mean the actors must use their voices well in reciting the precise vernacular of Hamlet, which Jacob deems a fun play with excessive melodrama. The TCC version has the added element of steampunk, a genre of science fiction and fantasy that affects the show aesthetically and musically. Sound designer and former student Richard Parks initially compared defining steampunk as “trying to nail JELL-O to a tree.”

“It’s almost indefinable,” he says. “It was a genre of music I had no familiarity with. Loosely, it’s a modern take on Victorian music.”

Parks ultimately succeeded by finding a mix of sounds clips from YouTube, including instrumentals from AbnyPark, a Seattle band that relies on industrial and world music, and Vernian Process, an avant-garde band favoring Victorian scientific romance.

left to right: John Cauthen, TCC alum Logan Bennett and TCC alumna Michelle Jenkins

Something Wicked This Way Comes,
Something in the night!
Something Wicked That Way Went,
What an awful sight!

The catchy composition adds a merry element to a classic with former TCC Theatre student Logan Bennett playing Hamlet, the prince of Denmark seeking revenge for the murder of his father. “I’ve mostly played comic parts before — Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the porter in MacBeth. When you play a comedic part, you pop up for one scene and steal the show,” he says. “I’m on stage just about the whole time for this one, so it’s exhausting.”

The costumes are elaborate and can get warm on a humid 90-degree night, which is often the case in the Grove. Decked out in a brown velvet blazer, laced up to her chin, an underskirt under her plaid skirt, tights and boots, Alicia Smith is Ophelia, a part she relishes because of the madness in the character.

“Ophelia goes crazy at the end,” she says.  “It’s really, really fun. It’s fun to play around with the different emotions and let loose.”

Shakespeare in the Grove veteran John Cauthen enjoys his dual role. “I play both brothers. I play Claudius the villain, and I play the ghost of Hamlet’s father.” The quick change can be tricky. At one point, Cauthen has to put the crown and king’s clothes back on and take the ghost sheet and beard off in what amounts to half a page of lines.

Michelle Jenkins, a TCC Theatre graduate, is the queen and another veteran of Shakespeare in the Grove. “Gertrude is a great part,” she says. “There’s so much meat to it.”

When the show goes live, the real fun begins.

“It’s the best,” Jenkins says. “You practice and practice, but nothing compares to that moment when you have an audience and you can hold them in the palm of your hand. There’s no better feeling.”

For information about Shakespeare in the Grove, please call (757) 822-5219.