Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

You can call him Hal: young actor makes Shakespearean debut

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One of the unique attractions of the early Shakespeare in the Ruins productions in St. Norbert was the promenade staging by which the audience followed the dramatic action throughout the torchlit stone remains of a monastery along the LaSalle River.

Patrons toted their lawn chairs or carpet squares throughout the St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre grounds to watch the SIR band of players use the sylvan setting to enhance the understanding of the Bard's language and stories.

At the outset of its 18th season, theatre audiences are still following the troupe, which has a well-earned reputation for making Shakespeare hip, exciting and accessible. But these days it's not the plays SIR supporters are following promenade-style, it's the organization, which seems ever on the move.

For its 2011 presentation, Henry IV, Parts I & II, SIR has literally pitched its large, black tent on a new site in Assiniboine Park. It's actually a parking lot next to the children's playground.

Mother Nature has not been kind to SIR in recent springs. Even Tuesday night's preview performance had to be cancelled due to near 90 kilometre/hour winds that knocked down several tent poles and blew a few chairs around. Last year's rains turned the tent floor for The Merry Wives of Windsor into a mud bowl.

"It was a nice location adjacent to the Conservatory but it was in a flood plain," says SIR artistic co-chair Kevin Klassen. "The traffic through the tent turned it into a big morass of mud. We brought in straw to soak it up."

The black big top, which has a capacity of 100 people, is now anchored into the parking lot, which was judged the easiest to find and the most convenient for ticket-holder's cars.

That leaves SIR no longer in the ruins, no longer outdoors and no longer performed promenade-style.

"We're hoping to define ourselves as an environmental theatre," says Klassen, an actor who joined SIR in 2002. "We're still, in our minds, growing and evolving and on the move. As much as it would be nice to have our own park to call our home, we unfortunately haven't acquired the means to do that yet.

"You never know where we are going to be, but it's not difficult to find out."

One of the stars of Henry IV was inspired by those memorable 1994-2002 SIR productions in St. Norbert. Tobias Hughes was hardly a teenager in 1997 when he got a ticket to Twelfth Night. At the time he aspired to be a paleontologist and thought the ruins would be interesting, but it was production that captured his imagination.

"I remember thinking that some day I'm going to roll with these guys," says Hughes, 26. "I was taking acting classes at Manitoba Theatre for Young People and thought if I was going to be an actor this is what I'd want to do."

The University of Winnipeg graduate is making his SIR debut as Prince Hal, the ne'er-do-well son of King Henry (Kevin Anderson) and heir to the throne. Company stalwart and actor Sarah Constible adapted the script, condensing parts I and II to focus on, among other things, the troubled relationship between father and son.

If you can judge a man by the company that he keeps, Hal's reputation is in trouble. Hal is avoiding the family business and hanging out with the debauched knight Falstaff (David Warburton), drinking and carousing. He is a disappointment to his dad, who can't see that Hal's misspent youth is part of an education that could make him a great leader.

"The story for Hal is one of being caught between two father figures: Falstaff, who he loves and can talk to; and the king, an authoritarian who thinks his son is not living up to his responsibilities," says Hughes. "It's a story of pressure and responsibility and parental approval."

Over coffee recently, Hughes talked about getting his acting career on track. Even before graduating, he landed the part of a wolf in Shakespeare's Dog, a 2008 Manitoba Theatre Centre/National Arts Centre co-production. He was the youngest cast member and got an up-close look at the work of top-drawer local and Stratford Festival actors.

"It was like a master class for me," says Hughes, who wears glasses offstage. "It really made me see the possibilities and the direction I could potentially go in."

His other gigs keep him focused, especially his day job as a pyro-technician for Archangel Fireworks. He has lit up the skies at Bomber and Goldeye games, as well at national competitions. As a longtime member of the improv group Outside Joke, he also has to be in the moment when performing or a scene could blow up in his face.

"So far my resumé reads like a zoo," he says. "I have a dog, some turkeys and lots of children shows. As far as the next step in my career, I'm like Hal -- I don't know what I'm supposed to do, all I know is what I do, I want to do well."

Theatre preview

Henry IV, Parts I & II

Shakespeare in the Ruins

Opens tonight, to June 25

Tickets: $12-$30 at PTE box office or by calling 942-5483

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2011 D5

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