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Shakespeare's 'Much Ado' set among historic ruins

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company enjoys telling people its production of Much Ado About Nothing is in ruins.

Those ruins belong to Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, and company members say the remaining walls of the 19th-century school for girls are a great setting for a fresh, energetic and entertaining production of Much Ado About Nothing.

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"People forget Shakespeare wrote plays to make money," said actor Nathan Thomas, of Reading, Pa. "It wasn't intended to be like eating spinach."

Much Ado is the company's second production at the institute - now a Howard County historic park - and runs weekends, starting tomorrow through July 11. The lighter atmosphere begins with outdoor seating on blankets and chairs arrayed on a lawn.

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Staging the play outdoors "eliminates some of the stuffiness," said Ian Gallanar, the show's director.

He said people are welcome to bring food and drinks or to buy them at the site.

To give the audience a more modern connection with Elizabethan theater, the company has set the play in the American South in the 1840s. Gallanar, the company's artistic director, said the that time period will highlight themes such as women's roles in society and the power they do and do not have.

In the play, Beatrice and Benedick engage in a battle of wits and claim to hate one another even as they fall in love, while the courtship of Claudio and Hero is interrupted by the scheming of the troublesome Don John.

The antebellum setting will also tie in with the institute, which provides a backdrop and makes up part of the set.

The set designers are not allowed to attach anything to the historic building's walls, so they built a stage in one corner of the building that accommodates several of the institute's stone steps.

A balcony stands against one of the institute walls in front of an upper-story window.

To make the evening more of an event, the company will begin with a stage combat demonstration, a production of Fifteen Minute Hamlet, written by Tom Stoppard, and on several nights a musical performance of Victorian-era songs by the a cappella group Larksong.

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Tours of the institute will be available.

The actors said they are enjoying the location, as well.

"A benefit [of working outdoors] is you are more free," said Thomas, who plays Friar Francis.

An actor's job is to fill the space, he said, and the outdoors offers lots of space.

Thomas, an assistant professor of theater at Alvernia College in Pennsylvania, also said much of public theater in Shakespeare's time was performed outdoors in natural light.

One obvious drawback to working outdoors is the weather, Gallanar said.

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Several performances last year were rained out, and this year the company postponed its season from beginning in May to avoid having its audience pestered by cicadas.

The company was established in 2002 when Gallanar and Heidi Busch, his wife and the company's producer, decided to stage a production of Twelfth Night on a shoestring budget at Howard County Center for the Arts.

The two had moved their Repertory Theater of America from Texas to Baltimore in 1999 and had previously staged outdoor Shakespeare festivals.

After the production of Twelfth Night, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company experienced "phenomenal growth," said Gallanar, who lives in Savage and is a Web designer.

The group plans to make a tradition out of performing at Patapsco Female Institute. It has staged more works at Center for the Arts and offers another outdoor performance on Federal Hill in Baltimore.

"There's definitely a hunger in this area," said Valerie Fenton of Beltsville, who plays Beatrice. Besides the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, there are limited outlets nearby for fans of the genre, she said.

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She also praised the material for drawing crowds.

"That's the great thing about Shakespeare," she said. "There is no way an audience won't find something to relate to."

"Much Ado About Nothing" will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. through July 11 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarahs Lane, Ellicott City. The park opens two hours before the performances for picnicking. Tickets are $20, with discounts for students and senior citizens. Children younger than 11 are admitted free. Tickets: 877-639-3728, www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com or at the gate.


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