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Salt Lake theater company offers a gay twist on Shakespeare classic

Published August 7, 2013 2:30 pm

Stage preview • A gay wedding is among the variations in SLC theater company's take on the classic.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The New World Shakespeare Company's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" includes gender bending, a midnight rave and a gay wedding. This clearly isn't the usual Elizabethan play.

For this production, the role of Helena, the lovesick young woman desperately in love with Demetrius, has been changed to a male character called Helenus. The show, which continues through Sunday, also includes a live DJ, and the fairies are portrayed as ravers.

"We see this as a show about community and how we can all co-exist with our various perspectives," said director Blayne Wiley. "We wanted to make sure that we produced the show in an inclusive way that represents the diversity of our local community."

It's not the first time the Salt Lake City theater company has twisted Shakespeare, said Wiley.

"We included the struggle of our current class dynamic by portraying some of the characters in 'Romeo and Juliet' as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement," he said. "In 'The Tempest,' air quality and the overall environment were part of our post-apocalyptic setting."

By creating a male Helenus in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the company hopes to "promote inclusiveness and equality for same-gender couples."

Despite the twists, Wiley and his co-founders — Dustin Kennedy and Jillene Stark — have a deep appreciation for theater, and of course Shakespeare's plays.

But the company's vision, since it was founded in 2012, was to produce classic scripts with modern interpretations and settings so that audiences can better relate.

The company produced two shows each of the past two seasons, but hopes to increase that to four. The main focus will always be Shakespeare, but other classic and original scripts will be incorporated into future schedules.

Members of the company help fund the productions and all the actors and crew are volunteers, Wiley said.

Proceeds from each production are donated to a different charity. For "Romeo and Juliet," money was donated to the Suicide Prevention Hotline after a close friend committed suicide. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" will benefit Utah's Homeless Youth.

Jeff Stinson, who plays Helenus, was surprised how easily the character translated to a male.

"Helenus' single-minded love of Demetrius drives him through the entire course of the play," he said. "The theme of chasing after an unrequited love feels so universal that changing the gender didn't impact a lot of this dynamic."

Being involved in such an innovative interpretation is fun but a little scary.

"It's always a risk to take a well-loved classic and do something completely different with it," he said. "The show is full of really fantastic comedic moments that play really well in a modernized setting. I think the opportunity is there for people who aren't fans of Shakespeare to experience it in a way that relates more directly to them and hopefully find a love of the language that they haven't had before."

Eric Leckman, who portrays the cocky, opportunistic Demetrius, has no problems with the gender reversal, either.

"I believe the biggest reason Shakespeare's works have survived so long and are still so well received is because his themes are universal. Helena being changed to a man doesn't change the show too drastically because no matter your gender or sexual orientation, love is love."

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"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

The New World Shakespeare Company's version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" includes a gender reversal, a DJ and a midnight rave. This production contains adult themes and may not be suitable for children.

When • Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 8-10, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 11, 5 p.m.

Where • The Leonardo, third-floor auditorium, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $15, available through ArtTix, 801-355-ARTS (2787) or arttix@slco.org.

Details • newworldshakespearecompany.com