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Welcome to Shakespearean boot camp

Bag and Baggage gets physical with 'The Tempest' in Hillsboro
by: Casey Campbell Actor Jacob Rorem plays Caliban in Bag&Baggage Productions’ version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

A large group of people is gathered in the middle of Hillsboro's Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza in a semi-circle, collectively downing a gallon of water on a cloudy evening. They soon begin engaging in physical warm-up exercises, stretching before engaging in unified movements, then take part in breathing exercises, projecting their voices across the vast area of the plaza.

But this isn't some new boot camp exercise regimen perpetrated by LA Fitness. Nor is it a crack team of commandoes preparing for war games exercises.

It's the actors of Bag and Baggage Productions, the local professional theater company that's preparing for the ultimate test of grueling physicality: an outdoor performance of William Shakespeare's 'The Tempest.'

Now in its third year of outdoor Shakespeare performances, Bag and Baggage is actually presenting an adaptation of an adaptation of Shakespeare's mystical tale, based on a Restoration-era version of the play made popular by William Davenant and John Dryden in the 1600s that cut much of Shakespeare's text - which was initially unpopular - in favor of wry political commentary.

B and B artistic director Scott Palmer, himself notorious for his adaptations of The Bard's works, has adapted the Davenant and Dryden script for modern audiences, cutting its lofty political references and hacking about three hours off its run time, to create Baggage's current production, entitled 'The Tempest or, The Enchanted Island.'

'Real touchy'

Even for Palmer, it's a bold move.

'People get real touchy when you do something crazy with Shakespeare. They don't want you to touch it. It's perfect the way it is. There's no reason to change a word,' said Palmer. 'Well, John Dryden and William Davenant would beg to differ, and so would I. You get a really interesting, very funny, insightful commentary on Shakespeare's play and the values of the time. Our audiences are excited to see what we do.'

In the past, transforming the Civic Plaza into a theater has proven taxing for the company's performers: Not only must they perform in the summer heat in elaborate costumes, but they must also struggle to deliver lines with emotion and heft across the plaza without the use of microphones.

This year, unlike last year's production of 'Twelfth Night,' the performance of 'The Tempest' is done in the style of a Restoration-era performance, which makes strong physical demands on the cast. Performers move in ballet-like unison while delivering lines, interacting with objects and one another and contorting their bodies into uncomfortable positions while simultaneously telling the story in a believable manner.

The result, cast members say, has been some of the most grueling physical performance art they've ever experienced.

'It's like 'Outdoor Shakespeare Boot Camp,'' said Palmer. 'It's intense. It should feel for the actors like the hardest thing they've ever done physically and mentally and vocally. But to the audience it should look like and feel like it's effortless.'

Beaverton-based actor Ian Armstrong, 27, agreed that the physical demands of the performance have been taxing, and credits the show with putting him into peak physical condition while challenging his skills as a performer.

'There are so many times when you come off stage and you're just drenched in sweat,' said Armstrong, noting that the addition of the elaborate costumes and Restoration-era white wigs will make the show even more of an endurance test when curtains are drawn July 28. 'That's how this particular physical style has to be played. It's so heightened and there's so much specificity with what you do, like holding awkward positions for long periods of time.

'You really have to be on top of your game.'

But Armstrong, a veteran of other Bag and Baggage productions, said he's also found the work he's put into 'The Tempest' to be among the most satisfactory of his young career.

'It's hard work, but it's very rewarding work. Most acting programs now end up being more naturalistic in style,' said Armstrong. 'I think it can be a real challenge to step away from that and go into a highly stylized production like Scott typically likes to put together.'

Exaggerated movements

Portland actor Benjamin Farmer, 28, also pointed to the show's challenges. A veteran of film and television work as well as musicals and last year's 'Twelfth Night,' he pointed to the play's exaggerated movements as yet another lesson in becoming a better performer.

'This is not any sort of style I've ever done before,' said Farmer. 'It's much like a dance. I would relate it closely to ballet in that everything needs to be very fluid and graceful.

'But at the same time it's made the show that much better. It makes us all look like geniuses when it all comes together and we move as one unit.'

Farmer added that it is the challenges, and Palmer's direction and fearlessness in presenting well-worn material in new and exciting ways, that made him want to return to Bag and Baggage in the first place, and will keep him coming back in the future.

'This is one of the best companies I've ever worked for," said Farmer. 'I was chomping at the bit to get back with Bag and Baggage. This might be my only theater production I do this year. It's so much fun, and a lot of it is the work, the atmosphere that Scott creates. We try to fuse the cast together, and through the work it's just such a satisfying experience."

For Palmer, the group's de facto drill sergeant, the results come completely to life on the stage, and as the curtain call for another round of outdoor Shakespeare draws near, he expressed complete happiness with the group of actors he's spent the summer whipping into shape in the glow of the Civic Plaza.

'I would put any actor who goes through a Bag and Baggage summer Shakespeare process in the top 5 percent of actors in the country in terms of their ability to be heard outside and be able to act vocally without shouting,' said Palmer. 'And when the audiences see them, it's going to be magical.'

Bag and Baggage performs 'The Tempest, or the Enchanted Island' Thursday through Saturday, July 28 to Aug. 13. Showtimes are at 7 p.m., and tickets are $14. For more information, or to buy tickets, call 503-345-9590 or visit www.bagnbaggage.org.