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The play's the thing
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The Savannah Shakespeare Festival has become one of the city's must-do springtime events.

The 18th annual festival is sponsored by City Lights Theater Company and the City of Savannah, Department of Cultural Affairs. It will be held April 30, May 1 and 2 at Forsyth Park.

Pre-show entertainment will begin each evening at 6:30 p.m. followed by a performance of Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona at 8 p.m. "It's one of Shakespeare's earlier plays about love and sex -- mostly about love," saysdirector Jim Holt.

The play is a comedy that is set in Italy. It tells the story of Proteus and Valentine, two young gentlemen of Verona who compete for the love of Sylvia, the daughter of the Duke of Milan.

As they try to win Sylvia's hand, the two are thwarted by a group of comical characters that includes servants, nurses and outlaws. An abbreviated version of the play will be presented Saturday, May 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the arbor stage as part of the Arts on the River Festival.

Folk singer Jaime Keena will host the pre-show entertainment. A short comedy, A Regiment of Women, will be presented by the St. Andrew's Drama Department.

Leisure Services Youth Theatre will present On the Very Same Day.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, the same day that Miguel Cervantes died. The play highlights both authors' contributions to literature. Music from the Renaissance and the Romantic era will be performed by Carnival Choral. The Savannah Danse Theatre will present a short ballet based on The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

In addition to performances, there will be food and beverage booths in the park, or playgoers can bring a picnic.

"There will also be some Renaissance-type actors from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival,"Holt says. "They will have booths and demonstrations, such are archery."

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is the latest Shakespearean comedy to be produced by City Lights for the festival.

"We've done most of Shakespeare's comedies," Holt says. "This one offers a different view of Shakespeare as a young man and author. Most people think of this one as his first play. A lot don't think it's a great play, however it shows the power he had and how his characters developed into the greatest classical

characters of all time. It's an interesting play and a delightful show."

 A lot of effort goes into preparing for the festival. "We've been rehearsing a couple of months now,"Holt says.  "It really is a year-long thing. There's also a lot of preparation in terms of sets."

The old fort at Forsyth Park, the scene of previous festivals, is being renovated, so the set is being built in the grass under the trees. "It's difficult to do in the time frame we're allotted,"Holt says. "When it's finished, it will be a nice performance platform, but we have a limited time to build it."

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the actors is learning their lines. "Shakespeare is not easy,"Holt says.

"It has to be learned exactly. There is no way to paraphrase Shakespeare," he says. "It is awfully difficult if you blow the line and try to make up stuff."

As with Shakespeare's other plays, the plot of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is complicated. "As simple as the story is, the language is difficult," Holt says.

Despite the difficulties of learning the lines, there is no dearth of actors who want to take part in the production. "There are people who come from New York City to be in this,"Holt says.

As many as 6,000 theatergoers will attend each performance. "Over the course of the production, we estimate 15,000 people will come,"Holt says.

"It can be nerve-wracking,"he says. "With that many people, there are so many distractions."

` But the pros far outweigh the cons. "There is such an incredible feeling,"Holt says. "The audience is really with you. Especially if something weird happens. We've had occasions when here were technical problems. The audience is very accommodating and forgiving."

The festival is an exciting opportunity to introduce your children to Shakespeare.  "This is a wonderful family activity," Holt says. "Over the years, people have been able to get a sense of the whole spectrum of Shakespeare's plays. This is something people look forward to every year." w

The Shakespeare Festival is sponsored by City Lights Theater Company and the City 's Department of Cultural Affairs. It will be April 30, May 1 and 2 at Forsyth Park. Pre-show entertainment begins each evening at 6:30 p.m. followed by Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona at 8 p.m.