To be, or what? | Shakespeare, down to earth

Charlotte might still be a suit-and-tie town, but when it comes to Shakespeare, we're strictly casual.

“It's more like a day in the park than a night at the theater,” says actor Joe Copley of the Charlotte Shakespeare Festival, which opens next week with “Romeo and Juliet” on The Green. Picnics are encouraged on uptown's most charming patch of grass. Even well-behaved pets are welcome.

But cell phones? Turn 'em off, folks. They interfere with the wireless mikes.

This is producers Collaborative Arts' third season of free outdoor Shakespeare – last year, hundreds turned up for a laid-back “As You Like It” – and the addition of a second, indoor production, “Much Ado About Nothing,” merits the new “festival” designation. Copley plays Lord Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet” and leading man Benedick in “Much Ado,” opposite partner Elise Wilkinson, the fest's producer.

Both texts have been trimmed to run less than two hours, with intermission, and the casts have been working with Shakespearean-acting experts to ensure that the remaining lines make sense.

Even to boneheads like us.

“A lot of actors are intimidated by Shakespeare,” says Chaz Pofahl, who plays Romeo opposite his own real-life romantic partner, Greta Marie Zandstra. “There's such a reverence for it. It's put on such a pedestal that people are afraid to do it. You kind of just have to let that go.”

That's easier, he thinks, in an al fresco setting.

“Outdoors – it's the way it originally was done. I love that,” Pofahl says.

Whereas Shakespeare's own players had rowdy groundlings and roving prostitutes to contend with, Pofahl adds, the Collaborative Arts company might face construction noise, strong winds and heavy urban traffic, among other distractions. The payoff, though, will come around Act 3, Scene 2, when Zandstra's Juliet begs, “Come, gentle night, come ... Bring me my Romeo!” – and the heavens obey.

“It should time out perfectly, that night falls just as the play grows darker,” Pofahl says. “That will be powerful.”

Updating Shakespeare

Another local troupe has gone even further in bringing Shakespeare down to earth.

Epic Arts Repertory Theatre's “A Midsummer Night's Musical,” opening next weekend at Spirit Square, is a unique, line-by-line adaptation of Shakespeare's text for contemporary audiences, set to a dreamy original score.

When Laura Depta brought up the idea for a “Midsummer” musical with partner Stan Peal, she recalls, “Stan was scowling, and he said, ‘That would be great, but I hate Shakespeare!'”

“I never understand Shakespeare, no matter how well it's done,” Peal says with a defensive shrug. “And I feel like I'm not alone here.”

So Depta started working her way through the script, updating the more obscure references (changing Acheron to Hades, for instance), smoothing out the more convoluted syntax, and generally “translating” the centuries-old Shakespearean language for the modern ear.

“If I line was famous, I didn't mess with it – like, ‘Oh, what fools these mortals be!'” Depta says. “If the meaning was clear, why change it?”

The resulting text, she admits, will rankle Shakespearean purists.

“But most people are like, ‘Oh, thank goodness!'” Depta says.

“If you think about it, people have adapted and translated the Bible. Some people think Shakespeare is as sacred as the Bible,” she says. “We're not wipin' out Shakespeare here.

“This came from a place of love for Shakespeare, not contempt, and a wish to make his poetry accessible to everyone. It shouldn't feel like being in class.”

Following close on the heels of N.C. Dance Theatre's own “Romeo and Juliet,” these two very different theatrical productions, with more to come, represent a rare feast for classics-starved Charlotte audiences.

“I don't think it's possible to have too much Shakespeare,” Joe Copley says, smiling. “It's relevant to any age. As long as we're humans.”