Hang around bars, billiard halls or restaurants across the state and you can easily strike up a conversation with the locals on which of the bard's plays and characters rings true to their heart. Shakespeare was first brought to the Yellowstone country when trappers like Jim Bridger traipsed across the landscape, mixing quotes from the playwright's pen into their daily language. Today this tradition continues through Montana State University's Shakespeare in the Park Program. While many Westerners flock to Shakespeare festivals in Ashland, Ore., Santa Fe, N.M., and Cedar City, Utah, over 30,000 Montana residents plan their summer schedule around when the Shakespeare in the Park troupe visits their town.
"Our popularity stems from Shakespeare's plays and themes being timeless," says Joel Jahnke, the program's director. This year the company will serve up a 19th-century Dickensian adaptation of Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing, set in an Italian Renaissance villa.
The 28th season will find the company's 11 actors and actresses logging 6,000 miles across Montana and parts of Wyoming and Idaho, giving over 60 performances in 51 towns.
Performances will be given from June 22 to Sept. 6 in such locales as Libby and Eureka, the ranching community of Birney, the wheatfields of Havre and Roundup and the academic centers of Bozeman and Missoula.
"Folks love putting up the actors and actresses," says Debbie Lyman of Heron, Mont., "and a group of local women known as the Pandemonium International Gourmet Society serves them a feast after the play is done."
Funding for the troupe is provided by the local towns, Subaru and US West and arts grants from the state. For more information about Shakespeare in the Park, visit its Web site at http://opal.msu.montana.edu/wwwmtsip/ or call 406/994-3901.