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An ode to Billy Shakes

YSU Theatre presents evening of Shakespeare

Matthew Mazuroski, an associate professor of acting and directing at Youngstown State University, said he has “troubled history” with the works of William Shakespeare.

“We put Shakespeare on this pedestal, but I think more people have been turned off to live theater by bad Shakespeare than any other thing,” he said. “The challenge is how do we bring these characters to life and this language to life and make it accessible to the audience and accessible to students?”

Mazuroski’s answer debuts Friday when University Theatre presents “An Evening of Billy Shakes” for 10 streaming performances. The production will mix monologues and scenes from a wide range of the bard’s work.

YSU was supposed to do “Romeo and Juliet” last year, and the production was in the middle of rehearsal when the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to continue.

“How do we create an opportunity for them to encounter the world of Shakespeare and the words of Shakespeare,” Mazuroski asked. “Shakespeare is so widely produced in so many different places, having that background is vital to their education.”

Doing selections from different Shakespeare plays allowed Mazuroski to work with the cast members individually or in small groups, which was a necessity during the pandemic.

“There were a couple scenes I knew I wanted to do,” he said. “There’s a great scene between four young people in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ It’s filled with stage combat and a lot of struggle, but it can be hysterically funny.”

He also took suggestions from students, but he wanted to, “Strike a balance between the tragedies, histories and comedies.”

The cast features Meganne Evans, Boardman; Samantha Gurd, Poland; Mitchell Sharp, Beloit; Destinee Thompson, Akron; Adam Dominick, Lancaster; Lexi Denney, Canfield; Madeleine Pomeroy, Youngstown; Machiah Davis, Cleveland; Kamryn Deja, Ambridge, Pa.; Nicolas Wix, Warren; Kyle Hudson, Minerva; Elise Vargo, Westerville; Hannah Rosser, Austintown; Morgan LaCamera, Lowellville; and Nate Montgomery, Columbiana.

One thing Mazuroski wanted to avoid in rehearsal was iambic pentameter, the rhythmic, lyrical style that characterizes some of Shakespeare’s writing.

“We did a lot of table work,” he said. “I wanted to make sure the students understand what is underneath the text, the meaning of text. There are great examples on film of Shakespeare being successful, and one of the things they do is stay away from iambic pentameter. It becomes about talking to each other, communicating to one another.”

Scenic designer Todd Dicken created a flexible set on a turntable, Mazuroski said, which allowed him to change the look of each scene, especially when paired with James Oakry’s lighting design.

Katherine N. Garlick’s costume design also conveys the shifts from play to play, he said. Actors delivering monologues are dressed in black, but the scenes with multiple actors are presented in the different time periods use for reimagining Shakespeare’s work.

That includes “Much Ado About Nothing” in the Regency era, a post-apocalyptic “Macbeth,” an “Othello” set in the 1950s, a Roaring Twenties take on “Twelfth Night” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with a spring break feel.

“It’s trying to find these iconic looks and moments and fit period to the play,” Mazuroski said.

While the actors get an education in doing Shakespeare, creating online productions give theater majors more interested in the technical side an opportunity to develop a skill set useful for film and television as well as live theater.

“I think it becomes really important, understanding lighting in film, understanding sound quality and, in post-production, adding underscoring,” Mazuroski said. “One of the big things is they’re getting a taste of what it’s like, on a very small scale, to work on a film … Those skills are easily translatable. Many who start in theater eventually move to television and film, especially on the technical and design side.”

That said, Mazuroski is looking forward to when the theater department can produce shows for a live audience instead of an online one. Plans are underway to open the 2021-22 season with Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” in September and the musical “Little Shop of Horrors” in October.

For “Billy Shakes,” Mazuroski had the other actors sit in seats of Ford Theater — socially distanced, of course — and watch while the other segments were filmed.

“As it unfolded, the energy was palpable, that excitement and enthusiasm and sense of community we’ve been so missing. It was nice.”

If you go …

WHAT: Youngstown State University Theatre — “An Evening with Billy Shakes”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through April 18

WHERE: Online

HOW MUCH: $10 for single viewer, $25 for watch party and free for YSU students, faculty and staff with Banner ID. www.showtix4u.com/events/Youngs townStateUniversity

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