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Free Shakespeare is always a wonderful thing as far as I’m concerned, and Shakespeare Festival St. Louis provides this in so many great ways. After seeing the wonderful Shakespeare in the Streets production, Old Hearts Fresh, over the weekend and then hearing the exciting news about their main stage production(s) for next year.  Their latest announcement is very ambitious, to say the least.

Next summer, SFSTL will be presenting a first for them–rather than one play, the Festival will be presenting three!  Over the course of two nights, SFSTL will present Shakespeare’s histories Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 and Henry V.  The plays will be presented in two nights with the same cast and set, repeating throughout the season in Forest Park.  This is amazing news!  These plays are so connected that it makes sense to perform them together, and the idea of being able spend two evenings enjoying free Shakespeare in the park sounds wonderful. It looks like it’s going to be an exciting season.

Now,  let me tell you about the excellent show I saw last weekend:

Old Hearts Fresh

by Nancy Bell

based on The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

Directed by Alex Wild

September 21, 2013

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Shakespeare in the Streets in the Grove neighborhood was a resounding success. My only concern is that I wish the audiences could have been bigger. It was a good turnout, as a crowd of a few hundred assembled in folding chairs on the asphalt of the closed-off Manchester Avenue, but I wish more had been able to witness the fun, clever and thought-provoking fusion of classic Shakespeare and modern St. Louis in such a unique presentation.

Old Hearts Fresh only ran for about an hour, but playwright Nancy Bell was able to condense and update the material with surprising thoroughness—not just name-dropping places and events from the neighborhood (although there is plenty of that), but delving into the neighborhood’s history and psychology, all the while telling the story of The Winter’s Tale (with elements of Pericles) in an updated fashion with a mixture of Shakespearean and modern language.

The story is The Winter’s Tale condensed, with Leontes’ (Drew Battles) irrational jealousy and false accusation of his wife Hermione’s (Jacqueline Thompson) supposed infidelity with his childhood friend Polixenes (Antonio Rodriguez), who is gay in this production, which makes Leontes’ jealousy even more irrational. This jealousy leads to tragedy and regret, and leaves a lost daughter Perdita (played as a teenager by Wendy Greenwood) to be raised by a stranger (Don McClendon as Old Shepherd), and cause Leontes’ the dwell in sorrow and regret for sixteen years, only for events to finally resolve in a fantastical manner at the end. In the midst of all of this interaction is the character of Paulina (Marty Casey), a long-time Grove resident and friend of Leontes’ who helps to tell the tale and bring about its uplifting conclusion.

Time and change are big themes here, with Time represented as a larger-than-life character wonderfully played by local drag performer Michael Shreves in character as “Michelle McCausland”. In an array of colorful outfits and with an attitude and presence as big and colorful as the neighborhood itself, Shreves puts in a winning performance and narrates the action of the show that portrays themes of forgiveness, racial and familial reconicilation, and communication as the three main characters represent that passage of time. Paulina represents the neighborhood’s past, Leontes represents the present, and Perdita (along with the rest of the children and teens) represents its future, and all three of these characters are portrayed wonderfully by their actors. I was especially struck by Battles’ ability to make Leontes sympathetic despite some of his highly questionable actions, as well as Casey’s solidly grounding performance as the voice of reason, and Greenwood’s hopeful optimism. The entire cast, including several Grove residents with little to no acting experience, was excellent, and the ensemble chemistry and enthusiasm was readily apparent.

I loved the atmosphere of this show, as well, and the live music directed by Nathan Hershey added to the mood of the piece, as did the use of projections of photos of the neighbhorhood’s past, and the spectacular mural by local artist Grace McCammond.  It was all very distinctly Shakespeare, but also very St. Louis at the same time.  It was an impressive production and I found myself hoping Shakespeare in the Streets will come to my own neighborhood in the near future.

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For more information about SFSTL’s 2014 season, check out their website in the sidebar of this blog

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