Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Tremendous Shakespeare at the Great River Shakespeare Festival

Much Ado About Nothing. Dir. James Edmondson. Perf. Michael Fitzpatrick, Leslie Brott, Stephanie Lambourn, Tarah Flanagan, Rosemary Brownlow, Caroline Amos, Andrew Carlson, Robert Ramirez, Brian White, Christopher Gerson, Jim Poulos, John Maltese, Silas Sellnow, JuCoby Johnson, Chris Mixon, Benjamin Boucvalt, Bailey Bestul, Justin Erbe, Emily Perkins, James Queen, and Addison Sim. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2015.

Romeo and Juliet. Dir. Doug Scholz-Carlson. Perf. Christopher Gerson, Jim Poulos, Silas Sellnow, Michael Fitzpatrick, Brian White, JuCoby Johnson, Robert Ramirez, Rosemary Brownlow, Chris Mixon, Benjamin Boucvalt, Silas Sellnow, Tarah Flanagan, Caroline Amos, Jim Poulos, Jim Poulos, Mike Munson, Jim Poulos, Brian White, and Brian White; and Mike Munson (Guitar), Zac Barbieur (Durms), and Silas Sellnow (Violin). Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2015.

The title of this post is "Tremendous Shakespeare at the Great River Shakespeare Festival." Alert readers will immediately ask, "What else is new?" They did, among other remarkable productions, a perfect Twelfth Night, a masterpiece of A Comedy of Errors, a great Othello, a brilliant Taming of the Shrew, and marvelous versions of both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Yes, the question isn't whether they're putting on tremendous Shakespeare. The question is which Shakespeare they're doing tremendously. In fact, that's such a good question, let's set it up among a number of others, FAQ style.
Q: What Shakespeare plays are being done tremendously by GRSF this year?

A: Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing. Didn't you look at the first part of this post?

Q: "Shakespeare Festival," eh? That means it's outdoors, right?

A: No, no. It's in a lovely, intimate, carefully-climate-controlled theatre on the campus of the University of Winona. You're thinking of various Shakespeare i' th' Park performances. Don't get me wrong—Shakespeare i' th' Park is great, but you do have to worry about rain and heat and mosquitos and seating and so on and so forth. At the GRSF, you can watch top-notch professional theatre in air conditioned splendor.

Q: Well, that sounds great. Can I just see the plays any day of the week all summer long?

A: Ah, there's something you should plan right now. The last show will be on August 2. Here's a handy calendar for your scheduling convenience.

Q: Man! That's only about two weeks left! I'll get my tickets right away! Now, they just just Shakespeare, right?

A: Actually, no.  They're also doing a production of The Glass Menagerie this year. For the past few years, they've done a third show, but you don't hear much about those shows here because of Bardfilm's keen interest in the Shakespeare side of things.

Q: All right. That sounds good. But all there is to do in Winona is watching plays by Shakespeare, right?

A: Although that might be reason enough, there is a constant stream of other Shakespeare-related material happening in conjunction with the GRSF. Indeed, I was astonished at how much activity there was! There was a symposium (see below for some details), narrated set changes, camps for young actors and designers, an apprentice program (they're doing King John this year), conversations with the actors and directors, film screenings (this year, they're doing Still Dreaming—for which, q.v.), et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Q: [Skeptically] Well, yeah. Shakespeare. And Shakespeare-related stuff. There's nothing else in Winona, then?

A: Egad, no! There's so much more! Again, Bardfilm's concerns focus on the Shakespearean, but there are concerts on the green between shows many afternoons, and there are really quite marvelous food trucks there. There are coffee shops and restaurants, and there's live music. And the scenery! Why, the two-hour drive from the Twin Cities is worth it just for the amazing scenic views of the Mississippi river along Highway 61 (the highway Bob Dylan revisited). And the river in Winona is beautiful—the bluffs with the occasional eagle flying over them are gorgeous and relaxing.

Q: Terrific! We can have great Shakespeare, but we can also get away from all the Shakespeare if we need to.

A: Yes. Well, technically. I mean, you can eat at a nice restaurant overlooking the river or listen to the concert on the green or hang out at a coffee shop—but I should warn you that you're very likely to overhear conversations about Shakespeare just about everywhere you go. That's a great draw for me: the whole town seems fascinated by Shakespeare and eager to discuss the shows the GRSF is putting on and Shakespeare in general. But if you really need some Shakespeare-free moments, a quiet stroll by the river will usually go uninterrupted. But I can't promise you won't start to think about Ophelia when you're down by the river.

Q: You've convinced me. I'm off to plan my visit right now. But perhaps you could give me some more details about the plays you saw and the symposium you mentioned?

A: I'm so glad! You won't regret it. And, yes, I'll provide a few loosely-organized comments in discreet categories below.
I always find that I have a huge amount I want to say about the GRSF productions—but I never seem to have enough time. That's partly because I'm busy doing all sorts of other reading and writing over the summer, but it's also because I want to post quickly so that more people can know about the shows and find time to see them. Let me give you just a few points of interest about the symposium and the plays as an entrée en matière to pique your interest and to get you to go to the GRSF.

The Symposium

I thought the symposium fascinating—and, no, not just my section. The GRSF had organized three presenters: Professor John Kerr from St. Mary's University, Christopher Gerson from the GRSF Company (who enlisted the help of fellow actor Benjamin Boucvalt for his presentation), and Yours Truly. Dr. Kerr gave an inspiring presentation centering on the different ways Paris has been presented in film versions of Romeo and Juliet.  My presentation was entitled "Shakespeare: Globe to Globe and Back Again," and it dealt primarily with Johnny Hamlet (for which, q.v.) and Makibefo (for which, q.v.) and what different approaches to Shakespeare in non-Anglophone languages offer us. Mr. Gerson filmed Mr. Boucvalt performing the speech about the apothecary in four different ways to show the differences between playing for the stage and acting for the screen. He then started to show us how he would edit those performances.

It was all completely enthralling—and then came the Q & A time. And that was enthralling, too. The audience (of about sixty people) asked really interesting questions, and we started a fascinating conversation that continued after we adjourned. It was tremendously exciting and entertaining. I certainly will be attending Symposia in the future (and, if I'm honest, I hope to present again as well).

Romeo and Juliet

First, it was a great show—well worth watching. The show I attended was sold out, and I gather there have been large audiences for this production.

Second, a few scattered thoughts:
  • I never noticed how often these two young lovers threaten to commit suicide. I think they each suggested they would end their lives three times. This production heightened that element of being on the edge of devastation, and that kept the audience on the edge of its collective seat.

  • Peter, one of the Capulet servants, is usually around for comic relief. He's illiterate, yet he's asked to deliver letters addressed to the important people of the town. You wouldn't expect there to be much depth in his character—yet this production gives him a sensitivity and purpose (in addition to the comic relief) that added to the scope and tragedy of the play.

  • The set design and lighting were particularly impressive.

  • The choreography of the fight scenes was intriguing—somewhere between West Side Story and a genuine switch-blade knife fight.

  • The acting was very good—and the attention to Shakespeare's text was impressive.

  • The portrayal by Romeo and Juliet started me thinking about patriarchy. Juliet's father is a demanding patriarch—but Juliet's speeches about Romeo (after their marriage) indicate not a break from patriarchy but a transfer of patriarchal power from Capulet to Romeo. 

  • Throughout the play, an exceptional guitarist named Mike Munson added color and texture to the performance with blues and rock 'n' roll riffs. He mostly played between scenes, but the music also entered into the performance, enhancing it and carrying the action forward. It was an innovative and intriguing part of the show.
Much Ado About Nothing

This show, too, was well worth watching, and not just for the thrilling experience of watching Christopher Gerson and Tarah Flannagan play opposite each other. Other scattered thoughts follow:
  • Tremendously villainous Don John, including one scene made complete with effects of lightening and thunder and (almost) a maniacal laugh.

  • Great work by Dogberry and the Watch—especially when the Watch moved as one. Good concentration on the language Shakespeare gives us there, which isn't always the case (e.g., Michael Keaton's Dogberry).

  • Supremely fascinating trickery scenes. In this production, they have Benedick hiding off to the side—but singing along (often as a mournful echo) to "Sigh no More, Ladies." The others notice this, and, during the final chorus, they sing heartily along (as does Benedick), but they break off singing suddenly, leaving Benedick to continue with an awkward solo "nonny" or two. Brilliant—and brilliantly funny. They also left in nearly the full text of each trickery scene, which enables audiences to see that they are really quite different—both in their methodology and in their results.

  • Great connections to Romeo and Juliet. You've got your overbearing father, you've got your scheming friar, you've got your plot to pretend someone's dead, you've got your scene at the tomb. Seeing the plays in the order I saw them (RJ first and then MAAN) makes it seem like Much Ado is a restorative, redemptive version of Romeo and Juliet.
There's so much more that could be said about the GRSF—but why don't I get some other work done and you find a way to get there to see for yourself?

Links: The Great River Shakespeare Festival.

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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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