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Associated Press
Actor Kevin Crouch, as Launce, performs with a deaf pit bull named Michael, as Crab, in the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival's production of "Two Gentlemen of Verona."

Tahoe Shakespeare festival produces 4-legged star

RENO, Nev.— This summer's Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival has produced an unlikely star: a deaf pit bull named Michael who narrowly escaped euthanasia.

The 6-year-old American Staffordshire terrier has turned out to be a hoot in his role as Crab the dog in the Bard's comedy, "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," festival organizers and audience members said.

Michael plays a miscreant of sorts who doesn't care to please his owner, they said, and his varied spontaneous reactions to his owner's laments on stage frequently prompt laughter.

Among other things, Michael has scratched his head, chewed on a foot or thrown apathetic glances at the audience when Crab's owner, Launce, played by Kevin Crouch, pours his heart out.

Joan O'Lear, of Tahoe Vista, Calif., remembers the night she watched as Michael spotted a tiny service dog in the front row.

"He honed in on her and whined at the perfectly timed monologue that the actor was giving about how even the dog didn't care about his plight," she recalled. "It was so funny. The Shakespeare play was good, but Mike added the crowning touch."

Michael's real owner, Michelle Okashima, of Incline Village, told the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza there's "a great chemistry between Mike and Kevin that makes their stage time together electric and believable."

Not bad for a dog who was scheduled for euthanasia in July 2006 in Reno after he was found running loose and no one claimed him.

Okashima said she's grateful for his last-minute rescue by Nanette Cronk of the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe and his selection for the play.

Michael and another dog were chosen to play Crab out of 11 dogs that auditioned. Michael appears in two or three plays a week, performing in three scenes for a total of about 15 minutes each night.

"What are the odds they would pick a pit bull?" Okashima told The Associated Press. "All the time they face rejection in our society. I was shocked he got the part. I really appreciate the fact they gave him a shot."

Michael has posed no problem other than the time he jumped offstage in dress rehearsal because a woman smuggled a Shih Tzu in her purse inside the theater, she added.

Michael also is a registered therapy dog who visits hospitals, schools and veteran's homes. He also has been used to raise money for cancer research.

"He got a second chance, and I believe in giving back," said Okashima, an employee at Scraps Dog Bakery in Kings Beach, Calif.

Unlike his role in the play, Michael aims to please people in real life. "He's a wonderful guy, real sweet. I call him my big lump of brown sugar," she said.

The festival, held on the beach at Sand Harbor near Incline Village, continues through Aug. 26.

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