Theater department retells Shakespeare: “Billy Shakes”

Matthew Mazuroski passionately directs a scene in “Measure for Measure” where Isabella meets with Claudio. Photo by Douglas M. Campbell/The Jambar

By Douglas M. Campbell

Director Matthew Mazuroski and students in the Youngstown State University Department of Theatre and Dance seek to demystify William Shakespeare’s work and bring it to a whole new level with their new show “An Evening with Billy Shakes.”

Each scene selected in “Billy Shakes” is from a different Shakespeare show set in a different time period from when it was written.

“‘Billy Shakes’ is my sort of take on it because we rarify Shakespeare so much. We think of hifalutin language and other sort of crap and I feel it destroys the immediacy of it,” Mazuroski said. 

Mazuroski feels Shakespeare’s work is genius but should be performed — instead of read — in a classroom-like setting. 

“More people have been turned off to live theater by ‘bad’ Shakespeare than any other thing out there. So, what we wanted to try to do was bring these characters — this language — to life so it’s accessible to audiences,” Mazuroski said. 

The production practices followed performing arts COVID-19 guidelines set by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. According to Mazuroski, the pandemic restrictions were a “blessing in disguise” for students’ schedules and work on the show. 

“We had a couple of people get sick, not from this production, but from outside jobs they had but nothing too major. What was nice about this is because the biggest scene had four characters and the other scenes had two characters … what was nice about that is I could work with each actor individually or in pairs,” Mazuroski said. 

Katie Gennaro, a senior telecommunications major, was the assistant director of the show. She assisted actors in line memorization and helped Mazuroski with tasks such as ordering shirts for the show. 

Gennaro said for a while the pandemic challenged her role in the production of the show, with the beginning of the production held online. Eventually, as practices were performed in-person, her role became more demanding.

“When working with the actors, it’s just finding the right way of describing what I or the director are looking for in terms of feelings for the characters,” Gennaro said. 

Gennaro enjoyed the different approach to theater in filming the monologues and scenes while viewing the actors’ performances and all aspects of production merged together. 

Monologues were filmed with two cameras in the Ford Theater from March 20-21, while scenes with multiple actors were filmed on March 27-28. 

Meganne Evans, a sophomore Bachelor of Fine Arts major, plays Emilia in “Othello” and Jaques in “As You Like It.” When the show was first presented to students, she focused on the goal to make Shakespeare’s work more accessible. 

“I love Shakespeare, but I did not always. There were times definitely I was reading plays in English class and it was like, ‘I can’t follow this. I don’t know what’s happening.’ I looked words up using the ‘Don’t Fear Shakespeare [website],’” Evans said. 

It wasn’t until she performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a senior in high school she learned to love Shakespeare. Her approach to both roles in “Billy Shakes” was to honor Shakespeare’s text.

According to Evans, her character in “Othello” will be translated from a handmaiden to more of a secretarial-type position.

“It was also interesting to see how much of it overlapped, especially with domestic abuse and how women were treated from Shakesperian times … ‘How did that change? … How did that not change?’” Evans said. 

Adam Dominick, a junior Bachelor of Fine Arts major, plays Claudio in “Measure for Measure” and Brutus in “Julius Caesar.” 

Dominick filmed his role as Claudio on Saturday March 27, with a full head of hair and facial hair. The following day, Dominick had his hair trimmed on set for his role as Brutus.

“We did ‘Julius Caesar’ the next day,” Dominick said. “A Roman general can’t go walking around with shaggy long hair. So Wendy, our props master and shop supervisor, brought in a pair of clippers and did it herself,” Dominick said.

Dominick considers himself a stage actor and struggled to adapt to acting with more subtle emotions and expressions in this filmed performance.

“I don’t really do film very often, so a lot of rehearsals were spent with Matthew going like, ‘Adam … pull back … let us see it in your eyes. You don’t need to show it with your body. We need to see it in your eyes,’” Dominick said.

Mazuroski feels like audiences can connect with the wide variety of Shakespeare’s work through the chosen scenes.

“Each audience member brings part of themselves into these pieces and it’s going to hit them differently,” Mazuroski said. 

“Billy Shakes” will continue to stream this weekend April 16-18. Tickets can be purchased through ShowTix4U.