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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Staging Shakespeare the way they like it

Montana company’s version sets play in 1917 Butte

This year’s production of “As You Like It,” which is set in 1917 in Butte, takes place Saturday in Liberty Lake.
This year’s production of “As You Like It,” which is set in 1917 in Butte, takes place Saturday in Liberty Lake.

As William Shakespeare wrote it, “As You Like It” is a comedy about a duke’s daughter who flees her usurping uncle’s court for the forest, where she dabbles in cross-dressing and young love amid a contemplation on class.

As Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ new artistic director saw it, the play written 400-plus years ago mirrors a more recent set of struggles. A touring production taking an outdoor stage Saturday in Liberty Lake sets the play in 1917 Butte, where real-life class conflict played out outside booming copper mines.

Kevin Asselin said he didn’t change any language or scenes in Shakespeare’s play, which gave us “All the world’s a stage,” among other famous lines. Heroine Rosalind is still heroine Rosalind.

But the production uses costumes and scenery to introduce the idea of 1917 Butte, “and allow our audiences a different way in to Shakespeare’s language and themes,” Asselin said.

Asselin said he set the play in Butte to make it more relevant in the communities where the company performs. The 10 actors in the Bozeman-based company are delivering 75 performances in 61 communities in the West, most of them rural.

He drew inspiration from the reign of the Copper Kings, specifically the social upheaval that resulted from the Granite Mountain disaster. A fire killed 168 people, leading to the first general mining strike in 39 years.

Characters in Shakespeare’s play are put-upon, too, by the ruling class, banished to the Forest of Arden.

“Shakespeare creates this corrupt, capitalistic court world,” Asselin said.

On Asselin’s stage, the “court world”/“Butte world” takes the shape of iconic images of Butte blown up to large scale: the Victorian mansion once owned by Copper King William Clark, an industrial cityscape. The “forest world” inhabited by the underclass is made of copper-painted logs, a mix of woodsy and mining imagery.

While miners wear distressed and dirty work clothes, the upper class dress in tuxedos and gowns.

Asselin, who’s worked with the company since 2002, took over this year as creative director from Joel Jahnke, who retired after 37 years.

Though they do stage shows in a few larger cities, the company mostly performs in small communities with little or no access to live theater. It’s a different experience from working in a large regional company, he said, and a good reminder of why he works in theater: to tell stories to appreciative audiences.

“With our company, there is no fourth wall,” Asselin said. “We are in the audience, we are with the audience, they are with us on stage. They are as much a part of our community as we become with their community.”

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