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Shakespeare in the Park stages '40s-era 'Othello'

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Allentown's Shakespeare in the Park is growing.

The free community production by professional actors in Allentown's scenic Joseph S. Daddona Lake and Terrace, in its seventh year, will have its largest and most complex set ever and, for the first time, sound design by composer Joel Abbott.

"We are thrilled with the growth," says producer Sarah Steele. "This is hands-down the most ambitious physical production we've ever done. It has become more of an event and has really grown in size and artistically."

There will be three performances of "Othello," Shakespeare's tragedy of love and jealousy.

Since the first production of "Romeo and Juliet" in 2006, Shakespeare in the Park has attracted more than 5,000 people.

"Othello" tells the story of the Moorish general (Kenneth Acosta Robinson), whose life is destroyed when evil ensign Iago deceives him into thinking his virtuous wife Desdemona (Jessica Frey) has been unfaithful.

The production is set in the late 1940s, just after World War II when the U.S. military started to racially integrate the armed forces. Steele says the setting highlights the theme of race in the play, in which Othello, described as a Moor and widely accepted as being black, is married to Desdemona, who is white.

She says the set also follows the theme. Designer Edward Morris transformed the park stage into a military camp complete with an army tent, chain-link fencing and barbed wire. She says they also are working with local military transport clubs to get a military Jeep for the set.

Morris also designed the set for last year's "Twelfth Night," which was set in the 1960s.

"He got to know the park and what works, and what doesn't work," Steele says. "It's a unique space."

She says the park, which is near where she lives in Allentown, was the inspiration for her to produce the Shakespeare in the Park.

"It seemed like it was built for Shakespeare in the Park and I wondered why no one was using it," she says. "We got some friends together and gave it a try. We had a great turnout and that got the ball rolling."

Other productions have been "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 2007, "As You Like It" in 2009, "Much Ado About Nothing" in 2010 and "Macbeth" in 2012.

She says "Othello" seems particularly suited for the space. "There is something about this play and the size of the emotions that fit the size of park," Steele says. "It give it room to breathe."

The production will feature lighting by local designer Anthony Forchielli.

"It's a psychological drama and some of the scenes are in shadows," Steele says. "It's like shadowy figures who are up to no good."

She says Brian Belcinski choreographed the fights with knives rather than swords to fit the time period.

The blocking has been opened up by New York director Erik Pearson, who has put some of the action down by the water and even has characters performing among the audience.

"It's one of the tightest plays Shakespeare wrote," Steele says.

Pearson also has worked on Spike Lee's "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth" on Broadway/HBO, Bill Irwin's "Mr. Business," Elizabeth Streb's "Kiss The Air" at the Park Avenue Armory directed by Robert Woodruff, Greg Moss' "Billy Witch" for Studio 42/APAC, John Glover's new opera "Our Basic Nature" for American Opera Projects, and Jen Silverman's "Tanner's Last Stand."

Elizabeth Barrett Groth costumed the cast in period military uniforms and late 1940s dresses. Abbot's sound design includes an original song he wrote for Desdemona.

In addition to Robinson and Frey, the cast includes Ashley Brooke, Jeff Hathcoat, Jacqueline Marriott, Christopher McFarland, Brian Morabito, Brendon Schaefer and Michael Sutherland.

Also appearing as soldiers in the camp are four area teens who are part of Allentown Shakespeare in the Park's Actor Apprentice Program.

Started in 2007, the program auditions local high school students and teams them with the professional actors. The apprentices are Alyssa Karounos and Albert Nelthropp from the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts, and Kayla Jimenez and Elie Nassar from Allen High School.

The play has been trimmed to run 90 minutes with no intermission.

There is an hour of free music in the park before each performance by local musician Scott France. There will be a food truck selling food, and picnic food is encouraged. Performances are held rain or shine. There will be donation buckets at the performances.

"What's exciting is the support from the community," Steele says. "And it's just a lot of fun to put on a show in such as gorgeous space."

•"Othello," 8 p.m. Friday Aug. 8 and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday Aug. 9, Joseph S. Daddona Lake and Terrace, St. Elmo and Union Streets, Allentown. Free. Info: http://www.facebook.com/allentownshakespeareinthepark.

The Tribe returns

Forty years after it first sold out two back-to-back seasons' worth of shows, the ground-breaking rock musical "Hair" returns to the same place in which it was produced by Guthsville Playhouse in 1974-75.

"Hair" will be presented Friday through Sunday and Aug. 15-17 at Cedar Crest College's Alumnae Hall by some of the same people who performed in the original production.

Tom Ortalano, who played Berger in 1975, is producing the show through his TKO Productions in conjunction with Town Square Players, which is led by his Easton High School classmate Sue Raesly.

Technical director is Sal Ritz, who played Claude in the 1975 production. Director is Mark Stutz, who directed and performed in shows at Guthsville, although he was not involved with its production of "Hair."

"Hair" is the story of a group of counterculture hippies who live in New York City. They are led by Berger, played by Tyler Fernandez, and Claude, played by Dustin Brinker. During the show, Claude struggles to decide whether to burn his draft card or serve in the Vietnam War.

"Hair's" Grammy-winning score includes many timeless songs, including "Aquarius," "Let the Sun Shine In," "Hair," "Easy To Be Hard" and "Good Morning Starshine."

To re-create the hippie vibe, the walls of the theater have been covered in photos from 1960s-era New York, and there will be beaded curtains and incense.

Allentown native Michael McDonald, who was nominated for a Tony for his costumes for the 2009 Broadway revival of "Hair," also came in to advise the cast on authentic hippie clothing, from fringed vests to bell bottoms.

Musical director June Thomas leads a seven-piece band and Kelly Jean Graham is choreographer.

When "Hair" opened on Broadway in 1968, it was controversial for its use of profanity, depiction of drug use, frank references to sexual practices and, particularly, the nude scene that ends the first act.

Stutz says the new production will have it all, including the nudity.

Also starring in the production are Kanyi Creppy as Hud, Max Ferguson as Woof, Jonas Bloomfield as Margaret Mead, Cheryl Moritz as Jeanie, Kimberly Sehn as Dionne, Elizabeth Stirba as Crissy, Morgan Reilly as Sheila, Brooke Whitmire as Hubert and Emma Gibson as Ronny.

Making up the rest of Tribe are Sharon McDermid, Sylvia Popichak, Kelly Chemidlin, Jared Blockus, Marissa Brewer, Kayleigh Downey, Kristen Sehn, Charlie Hopta, Katherine Marshall, Zinnia Santiago and Juanita Shockley.

•"Hair," 8 p.m. Aug. 8, 9, 15 and 16; 2 p.m. Aug. 10 and 17, Cedar Crest College Alumnae Hall, 100 College Drive, Allentown. Tickets: $25, online; $30 at the door; $20, seniors at the door. http://www.hairtickets40.com, 610-770-7708.

Kathy.lauer@mcall.com

610-778-2235

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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