When King Henry V gives his stirring St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” it is meant to rouse his soldiers on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.
When Lamoine-based playwright and director Brent Hutchins rewrote that and other Shakespearean scenes and monologues, however, he changed the setting to the fictional Down East Maine town of Broad Harbor (at a high school pep rally, in the case of “Henry V”), and jettisoned some of the Elizabethan language for some Maine vernacular, both salty and sweet.
The resulting production, “Downeast Shakes and Shenanigans,” adapted from both Shakespeare and from Hutchins’ plays and sketches set in Maine, is set for two weekends of performances, outdoors at Woodlawn Museum in Ellsworth, July 8-11 and 15-18. It’s presented by the Grand Theatre in Ellsworth.
In a scene adapted from “The Merchant of Venice,” the characters worry about money, but from a local Maine banker instead of a Venetian moneylender. Instead of Romeo and Juliet pledging their love on a balcony in Verona, you’ll see a couple of old dubbahs yelling to each other. And instead of Shakespeare’s original words, you’ll hear that something wicked this way comes, deah.
“Shakespeare was written for the common folk, and people don’t understand that anymore, because it seems so arcane and removed to us now,” Hutchins said. “Bringing it back to that original sentiment is a wicked fun thing to do.”
Hutchins, 62, is a Mount Desert Island native. He grew up in Bar Harbor, and as a teenager at Mount Desert Island High School, he was an avid theater kid and did every production the school had. After graduating in 1977, he continued to do theater at College of the Atlantic, even though he wasn’t a student there.
By the early 1980s, however, the demands of real life called, and Hutchins turned to his day job and stopped doing theater. He’s a fourth-generation Maine carpenter, and he and his wife, Vicki Salsbury, own and manage a number of rental properties in Hancock County. They also own Salsbury’s Organic Garden Center in Bar Harbor, which Salsbury founded in 1982.
Flash forward to 2005. Hutchins read in the paper that the Grand Theatre was holding auditions for “Arsenic and Old Lace.” On a whim, he tried out, was cast, and hasn’t stopped since, appearing in shows for Ten Bucks Theatre Company, Penobscot Theatre Company, Meetinghouse Theater Lab in Winter Harbor and Lamoine Community Arts, among others.
Hutchins credits longtime Ten Bucks Theatre director Julie Lisnet with inspiring his love of Shakespeare, something he says he wasn’t overly familiar with until appearing in many of Ten Bucks’ Shakespeare Under the Stars productions.
“His playwriting is constantly a delight and he can capture Down East and Down Easters like nobody’s business,” Lisnet said. “Like Shakespeare, there is a universality to his plots and characters, and we delight in recognizing ourselves in them.”
In 2012, he made his directorial debut with a production of George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “You Can’t Take It With You” in Lamoine, an experience he says changed him not just as an artist, but as a person.
“It made me more empathetic, more open,” Hutchins said. “When that play was over, I was so depressed. I wanted to know what was next. And that was the year I started writing.”
Hutchins, a history buff, said his initial thought was to attempt to adapt Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton into a play, but he quickly realized that even though he loved history, he didn’t truly know it. Besides, some guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda later did a pretty good job turning Hamilton’s life story into one of the biggest musicals of all time.
What he did know, deep in his bones, was Maine — its Main streets and back roads, its churches and grange halls, and especially, its colorful, idiosyncratic language, spoken by its hardy, good-humored, no-nonsense people. He recalled attending a community supper in Lamoine and overhearing two elderly people discussing how one got their chickens to eat rhubarb — by cookin’ it, by gorry.
“That was the first thing I ever wrote, was a grange supper scene,” Hutchins said. “It’s all snowballed from there.”
Like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, Hutchins needed a place for his growing cast of characters to live, and came up with Broad Harbor, a coastal town somewhere between MDI and somewhere Down East, populated both by longtime residents and people from away.
His first full work, “Closer to Home,” a collection of 17 scenes set in general stores, driveways, kitchens, town meetings and other places in and around Broad Harbor, had its premiere in 2014 at the Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor. It has since been performed at the Grand and by the Levi Stewart Community Theatre in Corinna, and it was published in 2018 by Leicester Bay Theatricals.
“Downeast Shakes and Shenanigans” was first dreamed up last summer, and was presented in a shorter workshop production last year. The full production this month at Woodlawn draws on scenes from “Closer to Home” and other unpublished scenes, and combines three of Hutchins’ favorite things: Shakespeare, Maine and community theater.
“I just think community theater is so important for so many people,” Hutchins said. “There are an awful lot of really good actors and writers who wouldn’t get a chance to perform without it. It can change people’s lives. It changed my life, that’s for sure.”
“Downeast Shakes and Shenanigans” will be performed at 7 p.m. July 8-10 and 15-17 and at 3 p.m. July 11 and 18 on the grounds of Woodlawn Museum in Ellsworth. Playgoers are encouraged to bring chairs, blankets and picnics. Due to inclement weather, the first two performances have been moved to the Grand Theatre in Ellsworth. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students.