Here's one of the important things director Elizabeth Helman wants potential audiences to know about this year's Bard in the Quad production, and it doesn't really have anything to do with Shakespeare:

This year's production has moved away from the imposing facade of Oregon State University's Memorial Union and out into the center of the Quad. One immediate result: "We're in the shade," said Helman. And with the mid-valley sweltering through high temperatures in the 90s and 80s, that's a bonus. (Attendees still will want to be prepared for how quickly temperatures can fall in the Quad after the sun sets.)

Enough about the weather. For its 12th season, Helman and company are tackling "The Two Gentleman of Verona," one of Shakespeare's earliest plays — in fact, possibly his very first.

The general consensus is that the play, which one critic has called "kind of a love cartoon," is not among Shakespeare's best work.

That doesn't bother Helman in the slightest: "Shakespeare on his worst day is probably better than the rest of us," she said in an interview this week with The E.

And, she said, the play offers a fascinating opportunity to watch Shakespeare begin to work with some of the themes that would come to brilliant maturity in later efforts.

"Maybe this play isn't perfect," she said, "but it's almost like a template" for later works, with early echoes of themes that would resonate in works such as "Romeo and Juliet," "Twelfth Night," ""Pericles" and "The Merchant of Venice."

It also offers, in Helman's words, "a fun world we can play in for these lunatic cartoonish characters."

The "Two Gentleman" of the plot are Proteus (aptly named, for how often and quickly the character changes his mind) and Valentine, two lifelong friends living in Verona. When Valentine seeks his fortune in Milan and leaves his friend behind, Proteus suddenly becomes enamored with Valentine's love interest, Silvia. 

The various twists and turns of the plot (including a couple of inexpicable wrinkles near the end that have puzzled Shakespearean scholars for centuries) reminded Helman of an old-fashioned Western melodrama. And so she decided to set this production in Wild West, complete with Western music provided by a band, Miss Kitty and the Barn Bangerz.

"There's a hoedown," Helman said. "You've got to have a hoedown."

In all, the production includes four musical numbers, and some members of the band will get involved in the action to the point where they'll be encouraging audience interaction — just like at a melodrama, where audience members are encouraged to boo the villain.

The play also includes a role for a dog named Crab. This production of "Two Gentlemen" features adoptable dogs from Heartland Humane Society in each performance.

The cast includes Oregon State University students, staff, alumni and community members. Cast members include Stuart Ashenbrenner as Valentine, Kyle Stockdall as Proteus and Sedona Garcia as Silvia. Other cast members include Forest Gilpin, Matt Holland, Emily Peters, Andrew Schiek, Cheyenne Dickey, Matt Easdale, Genesis Hansen, Kay Keegan, Grace Klinges, Mac Powers and Mike Stephens.

As is usual for a Bard in the Quad production, the cast includes newcomers to Shakespeare. Her advice to the cast, at least for this comedy: "Just go out and don't be afraid to be silly."

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