HUNTINGTON - When it comes to Michael Murdock's theater influences there's one very important thing to know.
Above all else - The Bard Abides. The award-winning playwright and one of the company directors at ARTS (Arts Resources for the Tri-State), Murdock is at it again, this time boldly leading the troupe into a third outing of Shakespeare.
After two unique, contemporary twists on Shakespeare classics "Macbeth" and "Julius Caesar," in the past couple of years, Murdock and the ARTS team have shaken and stirred "Much Ado About Nothing" with a 1960s Las Vegas lounge feel.
Don't tell the principal, but the old Huntington High School (the ARTS Renaissance Theatre) is chock full of live piano rambling, dice throwing, Vegas showgirls shaking and gambling at the cleverly spun Leonato's Messina, a Vegas casino.
"Much Ado About Nothing," which tells the story of an upcoming wedding and a hilarious plan to make two wisecracking rivals fall in love, takes place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 22-23 and Aug. 29-30 at the ARTS Renaissance Theatre, 900 8th St., Huntington.
Tickets are $15 show only and $30 for dinner and a show. Call 304-733-2787.
Murdock said the retro Vegas vibe works perfect for the romantic comedy in which two couples tumble around in a web of gossip-fueled wedding drama. "I think updating it would be Shakespeare's bag if he had what we had," Murdock said. "He would love it. We have dancing Vegas showgirls and everybody is rat pack tuxedo and cocktail dressed and slot machines and table games, and I think The Bard would approve. I think putting it not even in a current setting but a late '60s/early '70s vibe opens it up a little for audiences as well." Step inside the old HHS and the stage has been transformed into the casino owned by Leonato (played by Bill Stambaugh who comes uniformed in cool with sunglasses, a long beard and smoking jacket).
His name is in lights, his logo emblazoned on everything, his Dancing Divas shaking their tail feathers (giant peacock flumes) and his piano player, Nic Skaggs (Balthasar) gently tickles the ivories under the glow of the slot machine lights.
"The way we updated Mac beth was fairly safe, and it was a cool concept with the witches, and I think turning Caesar into a political thriller of today with all the TVs was pretty great and for this one we are relying on the cool factor," Murdock said.
"When people walk in they'll hear Nic playing over the speakers and it will be as if they are in the casino as Leonato comes out and thanks them for the casino." While Murdock was disappointed the Mardi Gras Casino wouldn't partner with them on the unique casino-themed show he said they've been able to pull it off anyway, the theater way, finding slot machines in Circleville, Ohio, finding gaming tables too and having Bil Neal build the showy showgirl costumes, worn by the dancers who open with some show-stopping Egyptian-themed choreography from Coni Anthony.
Patterned after the Flamingo casino in Las Vegas, "Much Ado" comes complete with some tacky tourists (played by Karen Kelly Pruitt and Todd Green) and even an Elvis impersonating minister in place of the play's friar.
While the rich pageantry of stage detail from cigarette girls and tacky tourists to showgirls and lights set you firm into place, it is the conversational Shakespeare dialogue that spins the tangled web of love (between two couples) that reels in an audience in and holds them tightly for the ride.
As is said on Facebook, "complicated" indeed is the relationship status of Hero (played by Russell High School student Emma Imes who has some 25 shows under belt) and Claudio (played by veteran actor Eric Wilson), as the two young lov ers navigate to their wedding of an arranged marriage (thank you Leonato and Don Pedro - played by Stephen Vance) that is falling apart thanks to the lies of Don John (played by Simon Woods).
And perhaps even more classically complicated is the love-hate of Hero's cousin, an old maid (of sorts) Beatrice and perennial bachelor Benedick (played respectively by Joanna Berner, who has a theater degree from the University of Kentucky, and Len Trent, who has a theater degree from Radford University). The two acquaintances love to hate each other so much that their friends conspire to get them together.
"Especially with Benedick and Beatrice the lovers who don't know they are lovers anytime they are around each other they are verbally shooting at each other and it has to happen bang, bang bang," Murdock said. "It takes a lot of rehearsal to get that timing down right and when they do it sounds a lot like music in a way, the cadence of those two saying things that have to be said and making words that they don't normally use in the common vernacular understood." Murdock said that while it always takes new audiences a few minutes to get dialed back to Shakespeare's English, the payoff is worth it as Shakespeare's twisted world turns.
"If you are watching Shakespeare for the first time it takes maybe 20 minutes to really get your ear trained to the dialogue but you catch up, and we now have people who are coming back to see the shows, and I think we have a good retention of people who've come back.
From 'Macbeth' to 'Caesar' we were getting continuously bigger crowds and I think that will happen again. People will enjoy it not just because it is Shakespeare but also to see what we are going to do with it." One of the main things Murdock hopes to do with it is to again inspire area youth with another school show that will take place on Thursday, Aug. 28.
In fact, that is why ARTS is doing a rare three-weekend-run of shows.
With schools starting back, they wanted to hit at least one week where they could perform for area high schools. With royalties reasonable, they felt like the Vegas-themed show would be a good gamble.
"We thought it would be good to test it out on a show that we wouldn't have to pay a lot of extra rights too," Murdock said.
"And it was two-fold because we also wanted to make a school show available so we needed to push as far into school as possible and give schools more leeway by having a third weekend.
The way the season popped out we felt like if we could push out a little bit more that the principals and teachers would be more willing to come to the show and we are going to have a pretty good crowd." Schools such as Covenant, Chesapeake, Lincoln County and Russell have signed up to bring students to get a easily-digestible and entertaining introduction to Shakespeare, Murdock said .
Murdock said he hopes the ARTS production can inspire students to explore Shakespeare's extensive canon of works and perhaps, like himself, spark a life long love with one of the early masters of the theater.
"My theater background in high school was non existent.
There was no theater program at Chesapeake then but Chesapeake has always been good about sending students to see things," he said. "One of the earliest things I remember seeing was 'Othello' at the Paramount (Arts Center). It was a touring Shakespeare company and they did it all in period costumes and I had not seen anything like or it. In school I had read 'Julius Caesar' and 'Hamlet' but this made me think that there is so much more out there and I understand what is happening and it is great. After that I have always felt a kinship with Shakespeare that way and that is why I've been pushing it at ARTS for so long."