FAIRBANKS — Graham Watts is a directing powerhouse, especially when it comes to Shakespeare.
With a theater career spanning 30 years and about 140 productions, he knows his stuff when it comes to the stage, and it’s that knowledge and keen direction Watts is bringing back to Fairbanks when he brings “Henry IV, Part I” to life starting tonight at Jack Townshend Point on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.
It’s Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre’s 20th summer performance, and it’s the ninth production that Watts has led in Fairbanks. It’s a love of the genre and the work of the actors in the Fairbanks company that keeps Watts coming back to Alaska.
“It’s the commitment to Shakespeare that the company has,” Watts said. “In the rest of America and the United Kingdom, Shakespeare is viewed as a renaissance fair type of event. Here, it’s taken so seriously. There is a big knowledge of Shakespeare and a love of Shakespeare here that you can’t find anywhere else.”
Watts chose to put on “Henry IV” because it’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular works, both today and at the time it was written in the late 1500s. It chronicles the struggle of King Henry IV as he tries to maintain control of the English throne, which he usurped from Richard II.
Watts bumped up the setting a few years — flash forward to the 21st century — so don’t expect to be bombarded with Elizabethan garb. The costuming is modern-day dress, and it works with the topic of the play.
“It’s a very immediate story in terms of politics, even in the world today,” Watts said.
The play floats between political drama and comedic antics set in a London pub, and Watts said it could resonate with viewers. He likened it to recent events in the Middle East — the Arab Spring — where young democracies fight to thrive amid worries of a power vaccum.
In typical Shakespearean fashion, “Henry IV, Part I” is filled with deceit, lies, a little treachery and, of course, some debauchery reminiscent of most of Shakespeare’s works. Don’t let the lies and deceit and battle scenes fool you — it is a comedy and a drama. In keeping with typical Shakespeare, characters are introduced in early acts, then reappear in later scenes. The play culminates with an active battle scene brought to the stage under the guidance of Jessica Jacob, a visiting guest artist and adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who teaches stage combat, acting and specialty courses.
The audience will get an up-close view of the battles as the performance takes place “in the round,” theater talk for a stage surrounded by seating. During a recent rehearsal at Jack Townshend Point, stage directors were putting the finishing touches on the seating, which is elevated above the stage. Guests can even bring their own chairs if they prefer.
“The audience gets a good view,” Watts said. “The round gives it a passion and energy that the audience gets to experience. It opens up all kinds of possibilities for the audience.”
If you go
What: “Henry IV, Part I”
When: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m., through July 29.
Where: The outdoor theater at Jack Townshend Point on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus (located off a short trail behind the University of Alaska Museum of the North.)
Tickets: $18, $22, $25. Available at www.fstalaska.org or at 457-POET.
Contact features editor Gary Black at 459-7537.