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Davis, California

Monday, October 25, 2021

Davis thespians keep Shakespeare alive

The thought of William Shakespeare may elicit memories of sitting slumped over your desk in your high school English class, struggling to make sense of Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing. However, a dedicated group of students at UC Davis want you to know one thing.

Shakespeare is really cool.

These bard-o-philes (lovers of Shakespeare, don’t you know) have joined forces to form the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble (DSE), a group committed to Shakespearean education and performance. They presented their first-ever production, Romeo and Juliet, this past summer in the Arboretum Gazebo.

Tonight marks the opening of their second production: the musical comedy Twelfth Night.

“Twelfth Night is the comedy that has best endured out of all of Shakespeare’s works,” said DSE managing director Steph Hankinson. “It’s actually funny, not just amusing. There’s a love triangle, mistaken identities, a girl dressed as a guy.”

Built into the play are five songs, written by Shakespeare himself. UC Davis alumnus Richard Chowenhill, who now works as a composer in Los Angeles, composed a rock/blues score to accompany the lyrics and provide transitional music for the entire production. Like Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night will also be performed outside in the Arboretum Gazebo.

Artistic director Rob Salas, who is finishing up a master’s in theater directing at UC Irvine, said the gazebo offers a unique opportunity to perform Shakespeare in an unconventional and organic space, while Chowenhill’s music is the perfect complement to the atmosphere of the show. The play does, after all, include those immortal words, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

Though the DSE is passionate about Shakespeare, its members recognize the difficulties in getting young people excited about 400-year-old literature. Still, they believe it’s important to keep Shakespeare’s legacy alive.

“For each show, there’s so much to dive into and there’s always something new and exciting to discover,” said associate artistic director and senior English major and theater minor Gia Battista. “It’s poetry that’s meant to be performed onstage.”

Salas agreed that Shakespeare’s words are complex in a way that simply doesn’t exist among today’s modern forms of communication. With the rise of texting and Internet-based writing, language has suffered.

“Language has been put on the back burner and our vocabulary has gotten smaller and smaller. Language is less treasured,” Salas said. “When you’re working on Shakespeare, you surround yourself with words that are so lush and full in a way that nothing else really compares.”

Though participation in the DSE is currently by invitation only, its directors hope to become a professional theater company and are considering applying for grants to become a nonprofit. Their goal, they say, is to get people excited about Shakespeare the way they are.

“Shakespeare has a negative stigma among high school and college students that it’s not very exciting, it’s a little dry. Fortunately, we were introduced to it, in performance, when we were very young,” Salas said of himself and his fellow directors. “We want to share that with as many people as possible, to get youth excited about seeing Shakespeare live and what it can do and how it can inspire your art.”

Catch Twelfth Night tonight through Sunday and Jan. 20 to 23 at 8 p.m. (Sunday also at 2 p.m.) at the Arboretum Gazebo. Tickets are $8 for students and $12 for general admission.

ROBIN MIGDOL can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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