William Shakespeare lived almost 400 years before 1920s Chicago, but you can bet the Bard would have drawn plenty of inspiration from its gangsters, guns, music and illegal booze – so it's fitting that Bard on the Beach has transformed Love's Labour's Lost into a musical set in the Windy City's most notorious era.
In the production, Ferdinand becomes a kingpin who controls the city's illegal liquor and gambling, Don Armato is a Brando-like houseguest, Jaquenetta is a flapper, and Navarre is the speakeasy where three friends vow to give up vice. But according to artistic director Christopher Gaze, the antics start even before the first lines are delivered.
"It begins in a preshow, as if you're in a speakeasy. Bring your drink in, and you've got to say the right password," says Mr. Gaze, who adds that the cast also performs music from the era. "So if you're wandering around outside saying, 'I'm not going in until three minutes before showtime,' you may have missed 15 minutes of good fun."
Bard is also borrowing from pop culture with its opening production of The Comedy of Errors, which uses the eccentric world of steampunk to colour the confusion of two sets of long-lost twins who meet unexpectedly – and under hilariously dire conditions.
Theatregoers with more Elizabethan tastes can take in a powerhouse production of King Lear, which is directed by Dennis Garnhum and features veteran Stratford actor Ben Campbell as the famed ruler who descends into madness. ("If I had it to do all over and come back as a better actor, I would like to be half as good as Ben Campbell," jokes Mr. Gaze.)
Also on offer is the world premiere of Shakespeare's Rebel, a stage adaptation of the novel by C.C. Humphreys about a master swordsman who aims to win back his love and arrange fights at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre – but gets swept into a much greater battle.
The summer-long festival also features plenty of special events, among them Wine Wednesdays, which pairs plays with B.C. wines; Chor Leoni Men's Choir performing songs from Stan Rogers to Céline Dion; the Bard-B-Q & Fireworks; the UBC Opera Ensemble performing Gilbert and Sullivan; family nights and more. Postshow talkbacks happen every Tuesday.
Now in its 26th season, Bard on the Beach is more popular than ever, having broken the 100,000 visitor mark last summer. So what's the secret to the Shakespeare festival's success?
"Find great actors. If you get the right players, most of the work is done before you've spoken a word," says Mr. Gaze, who founded the festival more than a quarter-century ago. "Beyond that, just follow Shakespeare and let him be your guide."
Bard on the Beach is at Vanier Park until Sept. 26 (bardonthebeach.org)