The Hilo Community Players have been putting on productions of Shakespeare’s greatest plays at Kalakaua Park each summer for 37 years, making the group’s annual Shakespeare in the Park the longest running theatrical tradition in the state.
That’s an achievement that brings a lot of pride to the members of the 76-year-old community theater troupe. Keeping the theater tradition alive and exposing the public to the works of Shakespeare are responsibilities the members are more than happy to have.
This year, that tradition will expand to two productions for the first time. The new addition, dubbed “Kid Shakes,” will feature a cast mostly of children and aims to make Shakespeare fun and accessible to a young audience. This year’s production will be “This Is Hamlet,” a play that injects comedy into Shakespeare’s original work.
“It’s all stuff and nonsense. And it’s meant to be so,” director Jackie Pualani Johnson said. “It has secret agents, a pillow fight and I added juggling. The themes of Hamlet wind through, but it’s meant to be a cross-eyed look at Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy.”
That’s a stark difference from this year’s other production, a unique take on “Antony and Cleopatra,” starring Will McGregor as Mark Antony and Leah Wilson as Cleopatra.
Using minimal props and costumes and only six actors for the entire play, director Jake McPherson wants the emphasis to be on Shakespeare’s work.
“Usually, when people go to the theater, they expect spectacle,” McPherson said. “When the spectacle is kept to a minimum, what the people are saying becomes the important part. People have to absorb the language and the words.”
Having such a small cast to fill the play’s 28 roles will require the actors to play multiple parts, often in the same scene. Subtle differences in voice, mannerisms and costuming will indicate to the audience which character an actor is playing at any given moment.
The cast members think they’re all up to the challenge and will be able to keep the audience from getting confused.
Laura Caswell — who directed last year’s production of “As You Like It” and will be playing six roles this year — thinks that if anything, it’ll help the audience better understand the play.
“At first, I was really worried,” Caswell said, “but I’ve been in shows like this before and played several characters, and the fun thing that happens for the audience is that they actually follow along better, because they have to stay so engaged.”
Despite the extra work required and the extra pressure, the cast and crew aren’t afraid of what’s being asked of them. Their love of theater is the reason they chose to volunteer their time to the Hilo Community Players and it’s the reason they enjoy the experience.
“It’s fabulous to come somewhere and forget your daily life for two or three hours and come focus on this,” said assistant director Justina Mattos.
That same passion is also what forged the connections that bond the Community Players on a personal level. Despite their varied backgrounds and personalities, being a part of Shakespeare in the Park brings them together.
“Would we have met if we hadn’t had theater as a common denominator? Maybe not,” Mattos said. “But you’re working together toward a common goal. And that in its nature brings people together.”
Cathy McPherson, who will play seven roles in “Antony and Cleopatra,” said theater does more than bring them all together on one stage. It creates an intimate bond.
“Acting is a give and take. You have to give to the other actor for them to give to you. In that there’s an intimacy where the human spirit comes together,” McPherson said. “That’s the magic. That’s why I’m so drawn to theater and why I’ve done it for so long.”
Hilo Community Players also is committed to sharing the experience with others, especially the younger generation. By giving young actors their first stage roles and producing shows to entertain kids, they are working to pass the torch.
Johnson, who is directing “This Is Hamlet,” is one of the original members who started the Shakespeare in the Park tradition in 1978. Her intentions are the same — to give the community the chance to watch and actors the chance to perform Shakespeare’s work — but this time around, her target is much younger.
“I’d like to expand the base of people who are exposed to Shakespeare,” Johnson said. “Kids are very savvy these days. They’re exposed to so much, why not include Shakespeare in that?”
From 4-year-olds to seasoned veterans, actors of all different ages will perform together in “This Is Hamlet.” For some, this will be their first stage experience, but for others it’s the chance to see a new crop of actors come up behind them.
Hilo High School student Anthony Rosario, who has been in several Shakespeare in the Park productions in the past and won his school’s Shakespeare competition, jumped at the opportunity to do a kids show.
“You get to meet young kids and older people with a lot of experience and see how they interact,” he said. “Sometimes, it can get frustrating, but it’s a growth experience for everyone and I’m glad to know that they’re interested.”
For the older members of the Hilo Community Players, such as McPherson, watching the kids flourish harkens back to the beginnings of their own careers and reminds them what it was that originally drew them to theater.
“Being able to watch children come and get involved in theater and enjoy themselves helps me remember why we’re doing this. It is after all called a play for a reason,” McPherson said.
“We do this because we love it. We don’t do this for any other reason than for the joy of doing theater.”
Shakespeare in the Park begins with the first performance at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and “Kid Shakes” begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 12, both at Kalakaua Park.
Admission is free.
For more information, visit hilocommunityplayers.org.