The Arizona Shakespeare Festival's production of Much Ado About Nothing is so condensed and fast-paced it could have been written by Evelyn Wood.
"If you let your attention wander you're gonna get lost really fast," says Kelly Johnston, artistic director for the Prescott-based Arizona Classical Theatre, which produces ASF.
What Arizona Shakespeare Festival will present on Aug. 30 at Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village is a family-friendly show that Johnston calls "60 minutes of Shakespearean silliness."
Besides cutting anything archaic ("no one is going to get the joke anymore"), Johnston has pared down the characters. And, like the recent Broadway production of The 39 Steps, those characters are played by just four actors - in this case Tracey Mason, David Pickett, Jordana DeZeeuw Spencer and Joshua Fowler.
"Thirty percent of any given speech is just archaic," Johnston says, noting that is just an arbitrary number he pulled out of the air. "It's something that Shakespearean scholars will understand but not the general public."
Make no mistake, Johnston loves Shakespeare and co-founded the festival back in 1999. In an earlier production of Much Ado About Nothing, he played Antonio ("I happen to like that role"), a part that is cut in this production.
"I'm a little irreverent in my view of Shakespeare," Johnston says. "I see him as like a modern-day TV writer. He had to crank out plays that were going to be popular ... that makes it a lot easier to cut. He wouldn't hesitate to cut."
Taking one of the Bard's most popular romantic comedies down to less than 60 minutes means starting with the plot points that are absolutely needed to tell the story. Then come the choices of what characters to cut, what lines to cut and what lines to re-assign. Input from the actors proved invaluable in this process.
The main characters of Beatrice and Benedick, Claudio and Hero, along with Don Pedro, Leonato, Dogberry, Don Jon and others necessary to the storytelling remain.
While live theater has struggled the past couple of years, ASF took the resourceful road of ... well ... hitting the road. They made the festival portable last year, taking As You Like It to communities around the state and staging it for free. It is a three-year tour to help raise the profile of the 10-year-old festival.
This year, with the shockwaves of the cancellation of Shakespeare Sedona still being felt among the Bard-deprived, ASF found space at Tlaquepaque to stage their one-of-a-kind Much Ado About Nothing.
After all, they have always wanted to play Sedona without interfering with Shakespeare Sedona.
"Our tour manager, Tracey Mason, saw that Shakespeare Sedona had to cancel, so we approached Tlaquepaque about playing there," Johnston says. "They said absolutely. We've always run a very close parallel to Shakespeare Sedona and Southwest Shakespeare Company, and we never want to see another theater in trouble.
"What's bad for one of us is bad for all of us."
Johnston and the stage manager travel with the cast. Besides Prescott, they've been to Page, Sierra Vista and Patagonia and will travel to Williams, Show Low, Window Rock and more.
"We have a very modest setting, props and costumes," Johnston says. "We just set up and go to town."
All performances are free, and everyone is encouraged to bring chairs or other items to sit on. Donations, of course, are always welcome after the performance to help the troupe pay for fuel and food on the road.
"Theater is one of the last art forms that is for the general public, regardless of your education level or what you do for a living," Johnston says.
Note: Shakespeare Sedona is preparing to return in 2010 and is seeking your support. Visit www.shakespearesedona.com. Also see the 2009-10 season of Southwest Shakespeare (Shakespeare Sedona's mother ship) at www.swshakespeare.org.