Recent setting and '60s music give 'Twelfth Night' a modern touch

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Jun. 20—In yet another sign Dalton is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, live theater with full audiences is returning to the city next week with William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

"It's a great comedy following a year of uncertainty and melancholy," said Chase Parker, who plays sea captain Antonio. "Dalton's theater history is long and rich — Dalton is resilient — and that will continue."

The play is "a really good time, and a fun way to celebrate the return to live theater," said Wes Phinney, who portrays the villainous Malvolio. "Shakespeare's plays were meant to be seen, not read, and when you see (them), it's a completely different experience."

"Theater cannot exist without the audience," added Phinney, Dalton High School's drama teacher and head of the theater department. "That exchange between actors and audiences, it really is amazing to watch actors when that audience is there."

Audiences are invited to bring picnic food and dine on the grounds as they might have done during Shakespeare's day. The Creative Arts Guild's Spigel Pavilion will open at 6 p.m. Wednesday-Friday — curtain goes up nightly at 7:30 — and beverages will be available for purchase.

Theater before Shakespeare and after the Bard is "night and day," Phinney said. "We had these stereotypical characters from the Greeks that stayed with us until Shakespeare, (who gave us) all the human complexities" with his characters.

Phinney first "fell in love with" Shakespeare's works decades ago when he saw "Richard III," as "I found myself pulling for the villain (the title character)," he said. "I just thought, 'How did (Shakespeare) make me do that?'"

Shakespeare "can perfectly encapsulate every piece of the human condition in a way no one has matched, and that keeps me fascinated with Shakespeare," said Lane Davies, a Dalton native and professional actor who is directing this production. To this day, "those black marks he etched with his quill pen leap to life" from the page when embodied by actors.

"It's really a quantum thing more than a literary thing," said Davies, who has spent decades acting on stage, including numerous Shakespearean productions, and on television. "He reaches across time."

Shakespeare's characters ask questions humans "have been asking as far back as any of us can possibly imagine, and when we (do his plays) we're participating in a rich tradition dating back 400 years," Parker said. "You can reach back in time and discover things others around the world have discovered and, maybe, sometimes, even some new things."

Next week's play is a Conasauga Shakespeare Coalition production, and the theater company was created to perform in the Burr Performing Arts Park in accordance with the wishes of the park's namesake, Jeanne Burr, who provided a $1 million endowment for the park, Phinney said.

"She loved the arts and was a great patron" of them, so much so the founding members (including Davies, Parker, Phinney and Jeff Burr) of the Conasauga Shakespeare Coalition considered naming the company "Burr's Men" — just as Shakespeare's company was "The Lord Chamberlain's Men" and later "The King's Men" — but the modest Burr would have none of the spotlight on her.

The first production in the park, "Henry V," in 2019, "went very well," but there was no performance in 2020 due to the pandemic, Phinney said. During the course of that initial production, those involved realized a new sound system, including body microphones, would be necessary to deliver the full impact of theater, so next week's shows will be at the Creative Arts Guild and function as a fundraiser for that sound system, as well as being dedicated to Burr, who died last spring.

The cost of the sound system could be "anywhere from $12,000-$15,000," Phinney said. "You have to raise money to perform theater, but you have to perform theater to raise money, and that's been the case" since Shakespeare's time.

The goal is to return to Burr Park, likely with a production of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," next summer, with a new sound system. Tickets, $10, for next week's production are available online at, by calling (706) 278-0168 or — if any remain available — at the door on show nights.

While the Conasauga Shakespeare Coalition is based in Dalton and counts several Artistic Civic Theatre and Dalton Little Theatre actors as members, "we have people from all over this region," Parker said. "It's an expansive group, and that is our vision" for the company.

"We have some familiar faces and some new faces, (including) some students from Reinhardt University," such as actress Katie Hartel, who plays Viola, Phinney said. Professional actor Jared Doreck, who worked with Davies in Prague, is also in the cast, as Orsino.

Matthew Carlton is the musical director for the play, which is subtitled "A Bard Day's Night," as the setting has been moved ahead more than 350 years, to 1968, which "makes it a little more accessible," said Davies, who founded and was co-artistic director of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival in Thousand Oaks, California, now in its 22nd season, and was artistic director of the Tennessee Shakespeare Festival from 2008 to 2011. Brightly-colored costumes and music in the style of The Beatles are among the flourishes for this edition of "Twelfth Night," a romantic comedy filled with mistaken identities, one of Shakespeare's hallmarks.

"I was a traditionalist for a long time, but there's nothing wrong with freshening up" Shakespeare's plays, said Davies, who acted regularly in several daytime soap operas, including five years as Mason Capwell on "Santa Barbara," which aired on NBC. The key is to "set the concept on top of the play," instead of allowing the concept to consume the play.

This production, especially with the contemporary flourishes, is "even good for first-time Shakespeare" viewers, said Davies, who has directed numerous Shakespearean productions. "It's very accessible, not a difficult test to understand."

And while some might be hesitant about Shakespeare due to the anachronistic language — his standard poetic form is blank verse composed in iambic pentameter — they shouldn't be concerned, Davies said: "It's the rhythm of the human heart."

Shakespeare's "verse is the emotion," Phinney said. "It's lyrical, even musical."

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