How do you prepare for a calamity?
That’s, kind of, the challenge for Festival Antigonish Summer Theatre folks as they get ready to stage Ben Hur, which will open the festival’s 32nd season July 10.
“The play is a comic homage to the blockbuster Hollywood film based on the novel by General Lew Wallace,” a festival release reads.
“The movie featured 200 camels, 2,500 horses and over 10,000 extras. This hilarious adaption of the vengeful saga of Judah Ben Hur and his childhood friend Messala attempts to include the same grandiose scenes and heroic characters, but with only four determined actors who are ready to take on the might of the Roman Empire.”
The play is being directed by Festival Antigonish artistic director Andrea Boyd who, in talking to the Casket June 25, said preparations are going along great.
“The cast is fabulous and fun… there has been a lot of laughing,” she said. “But it’s a really challenging piece actually. We’re still early in a way; gone through the play once and blocked it, so we have a basic idea of what is going on. We’re obviously not there yet.”
The play is full of exits and entrances, rushed costume changes and actors playing various roles, as one could expect when trying to stage Ben Hur on stage.
“It’s wild,” veteran actor Wally MacKinnon, back at Festival Antigonish after a 15-year hiatus, said.
“That’s the big challenge we haven’t really hit yet. We’re only just getting on costume pieces now and trying to work the timing on all of that. This is a big one for that; a lot of set changes, costume changes and all of that … remembering who you are,” MacKinnon said, noting he plays eight characters in the play, including Ben Hur’s mother.
“That’s an image you don’t want in your head,” he said with a laugh.
MacKinnon said it’s great to be back in Antigonish and on the Bauer stage.
“It’s fantastic to be back, it really is,” he said. “It has been 15 years, but it hasn’t changed too much, and it’s great to work with Andrea and all the new people.”
Other members of the four-person cast include; Henricus Gielis, Matt Lacas and Rachel Lloyd.
“Henricus, who last year played our young Elvis in Burnin’ Love, Matt who is from Toronto, also playing Ravi in a Brimful of Asha, and Rachel who is a younger actor from Halifax,” Boyd said. “All delightful to work with; positive, keen and playful.”
Boyd said she could see instant chemistry with the cast.
“You know what, it was day one, the first read through and they didn’t all know each other. And at the end of the second day, they were all sitting together in the theatre and I can’t remember specifically but they were kind of teasing each other and I thought, there we go.”
Working backstage on the production are Ian Pygott with set and lighting design, Elizabeth Perry assisted by Robyn Bixby with costume design, and BaoLinh Le with prop design.
“Ian’s set has solved so many problems beautifully,” Boyd said.
“We have this big box in the middle of the stage that turns and different doors open, so we’re in different places depending on how that is situated.
“We have a new costumer designer in Elizabeth and she has been working really hard, along with assistant Robyn, who is a St. F.X. grad, and the costumes are fantastic; true to the period while being colourful as well.
“And a new props person in BaoLinh who is a visual artist and designer. She is one of the more experienced prop persons we’ve had and comes up with these magical items.”
MacKinnon said comedy is his favourite genre to work in on stage.
“Fun to work in all but I love to comedy because there is nothing like the sound of an audience laughing, there really isn’t,” he said
“I love to do it all, really, but I would say comedy is one of my favourites.”
So combining comedy with an epic like Ben Hur might be the perfect combination.
“I grew up with those movies and I’m such a huge fan,” he said, noting The Ten Commandments is his all-time favourite film. Both starred Hollywood legend Charlton Heston.
“Early in my film career, I actually got to do a movie with Charlton Heston, if you can believe that; a not long before he passed away,” MacKinnon said.
“I was just in awe. He saw that I was standing there like I wanted to talk to him so bad, but I wouldn’t go over, so he actually came over to me.
“So it’s pretty neat to be able to do it because I’m such a huge fan of that genre of film, and the interesting style of the old acting … it’s a lot of fun.”
Ben Hur opens July 11, with a pay-what-you-can preview on July 10. All evening shows take place at 8 p.m. and matinees at 2 p.m.
Tickets are available online any time, and at the Bauer box office 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday to Saturday. A limited number of season passes are also still available, and offer a deal with a 15 per cent saving on main stage tickets.
A complete schedule and show details can be found online at festivalantigonish.com or by calling 902-867-3333.