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THEATER NOTES : Sword Fights Planned Out to the Hilt : Ojai Shakespeare Festival relies on armorer/coach to help actors make scenes safe but realistic.


Is this a dagger which I see before me?

It may well be, if you're John Hannah, armorer and fight coach for the Ojai Shakespeare Festival. It's the job of the 46-year-old Scotsman, an Ojai resident since 1986, to supply daggers, rapiers, broadswords and other pointed fighting equipment for the festival's plays. He also is responsible for teaching the actors how to use the weapons convincingly--but without killing one another.

This year's festival began last Saturday with the first of a three-weekend series of matinee performances of "The Taming of the Shrew," a romantic comedy with little, if any swordplay. But tomorrow night, the festival begins its string of six evening presentations of "Romeo and Juliet," which contains several fights and lots of weapons.

"The play was written in the late 16th Century, and the British spirit was such that brawls were very common in the streets of London, where the idea was to break some furniture and leave a mark upon your opponent," Hannah said recently.

"Romeo and Juliet," he said, has the second most interesting sword fight in theater--the first being between Hamlet and Laertes. "But the fight in 'Romeo' between Mercutio and Tybalt is a great fight. When you (choreograph) a great fight, you're writing dialogue without words. You want the fighting to be like the character of the opponent, and you want to see a progression of change in the character. What I'm actually doing is writing a bit of Shakespeare's play for him."

Hannah was 12 when his family left Scotland for England and 20 when he enrolled in the New Theater School in London. Initially, he said, the study was an adjunct to his Shakespearean acting, but Hannah found himself immediately and somewhat mysteriously drawn to the sport.

"Sometimes you start doing something and immediately realize that it's what you want to do," he said.

Today, Hannah doesn't mind likening his own creative challenges to that of the Bard.

"When Shakespeare was writing his plays, he knew who was going to be in his cast and tailored the parts to them," he said. "And when I choreograph the fights, I do it to reflect the actors' abilities."

In a stage fight, Hannah said, every step is choreographed--and forgetting even a single move can be dangerous.

"James Leslie, who plays Tybalt, is a great fencer. I started teaching him about two years ago," he said. "Mercutio (Jacob Ackermann) and Romeo (Aaron Craig) are a head taller than he is, but James comes across as dynamic and feisty--a sort of James Cagney with a sword. Jacob has never fenced before, but his body sense is very natural. He's a wonderful comedian, as dexterous with his sword as he is with his tongue."

One of Hannah's favorite scenes is the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio, which "begins as a joke and progresses to the point where Mercutio loses his sense of humor . . . Tybalt never had one to begin with," he said. "There's a lovely curve from comedy to absolute tragedy within minutes. To me, that fight is the best thing in the show."

Clearly, this is a man who enjoys his work.

"For me, it's where history and art and athletics come together, and I get a thrill from all those aspects," he said. "It's odd that something that's essentially a violent confrontation between two people can be beautiful to look at. But that's how I see it."

LIVING LEGEND: Adrienne Freeland seemed more surprised than anybody when she recently received the Camarillo Community Theatre's second annual Living Legend award. "I'm not!" she told The Times after receiving the award, unanimously voted by the theater's board of directors. "I haven't done anything. I sell Snickers bars. That's my favorite thing."

The truth is that Freeland, 52, has worked in a number of behind-the-scenes capacities for the theater, from the concession stand to producing musicals. Her husband, Camarillo optometrist Jim Freeland, who died last year, acted in some of the theater's productions. "That's what brought me in," she said. "It was a chance for us to be together. But acting wasn't my thing, so I work backstage."

Freeland is being accurate, but characteristically modest, said Camarillo Community Theatre board secretary Betty Sullivan. "You didn't necessarily know that Adrienne was there, but things always got done," Sullivan said. "She's co-produced, she's made costumes at the last minute, she's run the front of the house . . . . You can ask Adrienne to do anything, and she never says no. The award was to thank her for her countless unthanked hours."

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