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Never the Sinner
by John Logan
Directed by Rick Dildine
New Jewish Theatre
March 16, 2017

Pete Winfrey, Jack Zanger
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Never the Sinner is a highly disturbing play. It’s also extremely fascinating. On stage now in a riveting production from New Jewish Theatre, John Logan’s play about the infamous crime duo of Leopold and Loeb is one of those shows that isn’t easy to forget. It will certainly get audiences talking, and thinking.

A well-known “thrill kill” murder case of the 1920s, the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks at the hands of young, rich, and intelligent college students Nathan Leopold (Jack Zanger) and Richard Loeb (Pete Winfrey) shocked Chicago and the entire nation.  The play follows their story particularly focusing on their relationship. The director’s note calls it a “love story”, and I guess you can think of it that way, but this is one twisted sort of love story. The relationship as portrayed here appears more as a fascination, a mutual enthrallment, a mixture of admiration, self-satisfaction, and encouragement of the most dangerous impulses in service of that enthrallment. These two bask in the glow of their own perceived prowess as Nietzsche-inspired “supermen” who are aren’t bound by the rules of society. The play cuts back and forth between the trial itself and various moments in the development of Leopold and Loeb’s relationship, including the planning and carrying out of their grisly crime. Also featured in the story is the duo’s defense attorney, the world-renowned Clarence Darrow (John Flack), who looms as a non-speaking presence through most of the first act before becoming a major figure in Act Two. There’s also the determined Robert Crowe (Eric Dean White), the State’s Attorney who is prosecuting the case, who argues for the death penalty for the pair while Darrow argues against it. Also featured are Will Bonfiglio, Maggie Conroy, and John Reidy in a variety of roles, most prominently as a trio of reporters who recite headlines about the case and other events of the day, as well as interviewing the major players in the trial. The structure is mostly non-linear, but there’s a definite structure and purpose that takes shape as the play progresses.

This is a strange play to watch, because it’s about a horrific crime and two unapologetic perpetrators who alternate between glorying in their own self-importance, obsessing about their relationship, and occasionally second-guessing their own actions and even threatening to turn against one another. It’s an odd situation to be in as a member of the audience, being thoroughly disgusted with the events that take place, but oddly fascinated with these characters and their unusual relationship. It’s disturbing but also interesting, with dynamic staging and some truly impressive performances by Winfrey, Zanger, Flack, and White. Winfrey, as the outgoing, gregarious Loeb, and Zanger, as the more intense, less social Leopold, command the stage whenever they are on it, and their chemistry is strong. The spell these two hold one another under is clear and obvious in all of their scenes together, and they are compelling to watch. Flack as Darrow walks with hunch and shuffles with determination, bringing a strong presence to the part of the firebrand lawyer, his eloquent and challenging closing speech being a highlight of the play, and his sparring with the excellent White as the single-minded Crowe is  excellent, as well. Bonfiglio, Conroy, and Reidy also do well in a succession of roles, with Conroy’s turn as one of Loeb’s girlfriends and Reidy’s role as the judge in the trial among their most memorable appearances. It’s a strong cast all around, being driven by director Rick Dildine’s fast-paced direction and conveying the sharp, memorable language of Logan’s script with energy and clarity.

The action takes place on a stylized set by Peter and Margery Spack that has the audience seated on either side of the performance space and surrounded by pictures of birds on the walls. The stage is divided into three basic areas with the middle showcasing much of the action, with the courtroom on one side and an office/study area on the other side, with moveable set pieces and furniture that are arranged by the actors as needed. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and meticulously detailed and period specific, reflecting Leopold and Loeb’s privileged backgrounds, Darrow’s careworn attire, and more. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Maureen Berry, props master Margery Spack, and sound designer Michael Perkins. The world of the play, Chicago in the 1920’s is well-realized, setting the proper background for the action.

There’s so much going on in this play, in the interplay between Leopold and Loeb, the wrangling of their lawyers, the representations of the times, and more. Playwright John Logan has made a highly personal story out of an infamous murder case, and a fascinating and occasionally frightening character study as well as a study of the era itself. It’s a challenging, intensely dramatic production and a showcase for some incredible performances. It can be intensely disturbing, but also intensely thought-provoking. It’s a strange play to categorize–a crime/thriller/courtroom/psychological/love story, and it’s sure to leave its audience thinking.

John Flack, Pete Winfrey, Jack Zanger, Eric Dean White
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Never the Sinner at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until April 2, 2017.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rick Dildine
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

June 3, 2016

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is back with free Shakespeare in Forest Park, with a production that makes the most of the outdoor location and atmosphere. A Midsummer Night’s Dream as directed by the festival’s Executive Director Rick Dildine, emphasizes music and physicality. The production has a whimsical, earthy tone that’s augmented by a liberal use of music and a top-notch, extremely energetic cast.

As one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s plot is a familiar one to many viewers. It’s somewhat convoluted, and all the intersecting subplots provide the basis for much of the humor. The wedding of Duke Theseus (Paul Cereghino) and Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Jacqueline Thompson) provides the initial setting, and the plot moves forward from there, ranging in setting from the Athenian court to the surrounding forest, eventually involving an amateur acting troupe made up of local craftsmen and the fairies who inhabit the forest, led by King Oberon (Timothy Carter) and Queen Titania (Nancy Anderson), whose relationship is both flirtatious and contentious. Their sparring leads to much mayhem involving the mischievous Puck (Austin G. Jacobs and Ryan A. Jacobs), who carries out Oberon’s wishes as well as indulging in his own humorous whims. These actions lead to mix-ups in the romantic entanglements of four young Athenians as well as weaver Bottom (Stephen Pilkington), who becomes involved with Titania herself in a delightfully ridiculous plot twist.

This production’s emphasis on physical comedy is especially successful in the plot involving the young lovers Hermia (Cassia Thompson) and Lysander (Justin Blanchard), who want to marry despite the wishes of Hermia’s father Egeus (Whit Reichert), who orders her to marry Demetrius (Pete Winfrey), whose affection for Hermia is not returned. It’s Hermia’s childhood friend Helena (Rachel Christopher) who loves Demetrius although he doesn’t care for her, until Puck and a magical plant become involved, mixing up the affections of the men and causing further confusion for the women. All four performers give energetic, hilarious performances, with Christopher’s determined and perpetually rejected Helena being the standout. Kudos also to fight choreographer Paul Dennhardt for some truly marvelous physical moments.

The double-casting of Puck is an interesting choice, combined with director Rick Dildine’s inventive staging to make the character seem to appear and disappear in various places on stage with seemingly miraculous speed. Both actors give charming, impish performances. Other standouts in the cast include Carter’s bombastic Oberon, Anderson’s quirky and assertive Titania, and Pilkington’s delightfully hammy Bottom. It’s a strong, extremely cohesive cast overall, without a weak link, making the most of the comedic elements of the story. The “Pyramus and Thisby” play-within-a-play is riotously funny, as well–with all of the players (Michael Propster as Peter Quince, Jay Stalder as Francis Flute, Jerry Vogel as Robin Starveling, Reginald Pierre as Tom Snout, and Alan Knoll as Snug) contributing to the hilarity. This performance is a real highlight of this production. There’s also an excellent use of music, played on stage by the actors, including original songs by Peter Mark Kendall and some additional folk-style songs that have been added to the production.

The overall whimsical air of the production is augmented by Scott C. Neale’s colorful multi-level set, featuring a series of doors from which the players emerge at various times, particularly serving as a vehicle for Puck’s appearances. The costumes, by Dottie Marshal Englis, represent various styles mostly with an early 20th Century air,  and John Wylie’s lighting adds to the overall fantastical atmosphere of the production.

This staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of style, energy, and a great deal of fun. It’s the second production of this show for the festival, but their first was before I moved to St. Louis. From what I can see here, the second time is definitely a charm.

Cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is being presented by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 26, 2016.

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Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has been a major staple of the St. Louis theatre scene, and an important fixture of late Spring in Forest Park since their first production, Romeo and Juliet, in 2001. Now, after seemingly perfecting their tried and true routine of producing one full-scale Shakespeare play per year, Executive Director Rick Dildine and his carefully assembled creative team are trying something new.  Starting next week with the opening of a condensed version of the Bard’s Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and continuing the following week with the premiere of Henry V, for the first time in the festival’s history the feature presentation will be a cycle of plays rather than just one.  After the opening of Henry V, both plays will be presented on alternating nights until closing night on June 15th.  It marks an ambitious new period in the history of the festival, as well as an exciting adventure for all involved.

The idea for producing this cycle of plays came from Dildine’s desire for more of a true festival format for the Forest Park productions, and as a recognition of the scope and vision of Shakespeare’s history plays. “For the past four years, we’ve been talking about what does a festival look like?  And I think that a festival is more than one thing,” says Dildine. “So this is the beginning of fully realizing a festival format.  And I didn’t want to do just any two plays. I wanted to do something more that felt like an epic event; that felt like something unique and exciting.  And what we have at our disposal is that we have this history of plays, of how Shakespeare thought about history. So we said, what if we did an epic history moment?  That’s when I came up with the idea of doing Henry IV part 1 and 2 and Henry V.

When asked about whether the recent BBC television production of the plays, called The Hollow Crown and aired in the United States on PBS, had any influence on the decision to present these plays at the Festival, Dildine says it did not. He refers to the timing of the TV show’s airing as a “happy coincidence” in that now the plays will be fresh in the minds of more of the general public. While he says the specific plan for this production began about four years ago and has been in the serious planning stages for two, the original inspiration came from an experience Dildine had years ago as a young actor, when he was able to see a production of the cycle of plays often referred to as the “Henriad”, which consists of Richard III, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. “To watch all of those plays happen in a weekend with one cast in rotating rep,” he says, “was one of the most exciting theatrical experiences of my life. And I said that if I was ever in a position to share that experience with other people, I wanted to do it. So that opportunity, it took four years to make it happen here, but it has come to us. And then to find out that the BBC produced all of them, it’s just a bonus”.

With the idea firmly in place, Dildine’s next task was to recruit directors for the individual productions, as well as a design team. Tim Ocel, who is new to the Festival but has directed several plays in the St. Louis area and elsewhere, was brought in to direct Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Bruce Longworth, who had previously directed SFSTL’s productions of Hamlet and Othello, will direct Henry V. Apparently, the choice as to who would direct which play was relatively easy. According to Longworth. “[Ocel] and Rick had a conversation in which he expressed interest in Henry IV, and Rick mentioned that to me and I said, well that’s just fine because I express interest in Henry V, so everything works out for everyone “.

Both directors are excited and passionate about the material and the project in general. Longworth refers to Henry V as a “thrilling, thrilling story”, and adds that it is “a story about courage, faith, and loyalty. A story of a young man who is learning how to be a king, and what it means to be a king. He learns about the leadership required, the tremendous burden of responsibility involved, the sense of loneliness that comes with being a king. These are exciting themes.”

For Ocel, the Henry IV plays represent a man’s choice between chaos and law, as well as detailing England’s growth as a more civilized nation. “And I do think that’s what happens in Henry IV particularly,” he explains,”that with Prince Hal, that he could decide to hang with Falstaff and allow chaos back into the kingdom through that kind of bacchanalian Dionysian force that Falstaff and what he represents is, or he could choose to lead the country to become the next King, and choose the law–which in our play is represented by the Lord Chief Justice–and say that law has a place in the world of civilized men”.

“There’s something about that really somewhat complete arc within the larger arc of the chronicles, of the history chronicles, that is really truthful,” Ocel adds. “And so the plays do chronicle England’s steps toward civilization.The other interesting thing that audiences I don’t think realize is that, because Henry IV usurped the crown from Richard II, that his eldest son who is line to be Henry V was not brought up to be a prince. He was not brought up to be king. So, it seems that Prince Hal is having greatness thrust upon him, and a good part of play, I think, is him deciding whether he wants that or not.”

Ocel was also faced with the particular challenge of combining two separate plays into one. Majoring on the main themes, as well as keeping track of the overall word count, helped him decide what to keep and what to cut in order to create a playable script. Describing the process, he explains that he “just took both plays, put them all in a row and said, OK, here is five to six hours’ worth of play. In order for us to play in the park, the play has to be 2 hours and 45 minutes or less, to get out of the park by 11:00. So I just started whittling down, and before I whittled down I had to decide what I wanted to focus on in terms of the arc of these two plays being together. And I decided that the thing to really focus on was the triangle of the three major players, which is Henry IV and Falstaff at either end of a line, and Prince Hal in the middle of that at the top of triangle, and Hal has to pick between those two, essentially father figures. But that really was the thrust of the evening that we’re going to see in the park.”  He also points out how Prince Hal, in a way, becomes somewhat of a surrogate for the audience in terms of mentally processing his dilemma, in that “[the audience] needs to make the judgment call on their own as to what we might do individually, if we were in that position.  The play really believes in civilization and mankind moving forward, which is about justice and about law and all of that.”

Ultimately, what Ocel came up with was a script in which  “two-thirds of what the audience is going to see here is Part 1, and then the final third of the play is Part 2.”  The script also required a great deal of re-reading to make sure it would make sense to an audience. “Once  you have the cutting in front of you,” he explains “you have to forget that you know any other information than the words that are in front of you in this particular version, and say does this play make sense? We are not assuming that anybody who comes to see this knows the plays. It would be nice if they do, but you do not have to know, because the play will tell you what you need to know, as Shakespeare always did. He pretty much told you the stuff that you need to know.”

Set under construction in Shakespeare Glen, Forest  Park

Set under construction in Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park

There has been a great deal of collaboration in producing a cohesive cycle of plays that will feature the same ensemble across both productions. Both directors have worked with the plays’ designers, such as set designer Scott C. Neale and costume desinger Dottie Marshall Englis, to achieve a consistent look for the shows. “We’re both working with the same design team,” says Longworth, “so we both have ideas of what the set should look like and the costumes, and so there’s been a tremendous amount of collaboration with the design team to come up with a look that serves both plays.  We went through the casting process together, Tim and I, along with Rick, so we saw the same folks auditioned and collectively chose the company. It is the same company of 22 actors in both productions, so there’s a lot of collaboration in terms of how the shows will be rehearsed concurrently.”

In terms of the shows’ overall aesthetic, Dildine explains that “we’re setting both plays in the same time period, so we’re using one set and one aesthetic of costuming.” Longworth elaborates, describing how the show will have essentially a traditional historical setting, but more of an abstract set. “The time setting is in period, in terms of costumes, or at least nominally in period. The settings you will see onstage is not a literal setting. You know, you’re not going to see a 15th Century building. You’re going to something that is much more abstract.” As for the costumes, according to Longworth, they “will look to be period costumes although there are elements in the costuming that have… a bit more kind of modern flavor. But they will look to the casual eye very much as period costumes.”

The casting process involved Dildine and both directors, and will feature what Dildine describes as “a who’s who of St. Louis actors”, including Jim Butz, Joneal Joplin, Jerry Vogel, Michael James Reed, Kari Ely, Kelley Weber, and more.  In addition to the local there are also several performers who have been brought in from other parts of the country. “It’s a very talented ensemble of people,” says Dildine. Longworth refers to them as “a rock and roll company” and adds that “the actors you get to do Shakespeare, they do Shakespeare because they love it, so it’s always great fun working with actors who are excited about the project you’re working on together.”

One challenging aspect of casting was that, while some performers such as Butz (who plays Prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V) will be playing the same character throughout both plays, others will be playing multiple roles.  Ocel explains the process, mentioning how the actors’ auditions often dictated what different roles they would play. “We would… make doubling decisions based on the actors standing in front of us,” he says, “and what made the most sense with their physicality, their age, their fight ability, that kind of thing, as opposed to us… sticking with some kind of paperwork notion about who should double in what scene.”

Both plays have been rehearsing at the same time, starting in April and leading up to the opening of Henry IV next week, and then Henry V the following week. Although the plays will normally alternate performance nights, there will be two Saturdays in which both plays will be presented in the same day. As Dildine explains, “Henry IV will begin at 4:30 in the afternoon, in broad sunlight. It will go until about 7:30, when we will take an hour-long break, and we’ll invite everyone to take the break at the same time. And then at 8:30, we’ll begin Henry V.” There will also be an intermission in the middle of each individual play, providing  for a total of three breaks throughout the performance day.

This all promises to be a unique experience for the audience and the beginning of a new era for SFSTL.  Although Dildine isn’t planning to do another cycle of plays in the park next year, he envisions expanding to more projects outside the park. “We’ll go back to doing one play in the park [next year]”, he says, “but there will be other plays that we will present in other ways during our season time.”

As for what this year’s production means for the future of SFSTL and theatre in St. Louis, Dildine is adamant in his optimism. “I think this is a major moment for the institution, as an institution that is capable of producing a season of work.  We’ve been building to this moment, with other programs in the schools, in the streets. And now building upon that work in the park, that’s what I think is going to be exciting for people, to see the artistic excellence and the professional quality of one of only 12 free Shakespeare festivals in the country, right here in St. Louis. And the city has something to celebrate, with this institution.”

The set has been assembled in Shakespeare Glen, and the space is being made ready to accommodate the thousands of audience members who are expected to attend over the month-long performance season.  With a classic story and sweeping historical theme, these plays represent some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated work.  Ocel even goes so far to say that he thinks Henry IV part 1 “could be [Shakespeare’s] greatest play”, adding that he thinks it’s even better than Hamlet.  It remains to be seen how well this production will be received, but with all care and thought that have been put into the process of presenting it, this project promises to be something truly exceptional.

The nearly completed set.

The nearly completed set.

 

Henry IV parts 1 and 2 opens in Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park on May 17th, and Henry V opens on May 24th, with both plays playing on alternating nights until June 15th.  For more information see the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis official website

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Dildine_Headshot_9-1-09

I recently had the honor of interviewing Rick Dildine, the Executive Director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and one of the most influential figures in the current St. Louis theatre scene.  SFSTL will be concluding its current production of Twelfth Night this weekend. We talked about how his views on Shakespeare, theatre in general, St. Louis as a cultural center, and more.  Here are the highlights:

Michelle: How did you get into theatre and, more specifically, how did you discover Shakespeare?

Rick Dildine: That’s kind of a timely question because I just was talking about this with someone the other day—actually, a teacher. It started with my 8th Grade English teacher, who suggested that over the holiday break, that I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then she said “I’ll give you bonus points if you put together the play with all the kids in the class. And I did it, and she said “you know, maybe you should consider doing this as a career someday”. And I’d never thought about that, but from that moment on I started doing theatre. So, it started with a teacher for me.

M: So you started doing theatre with Shakespeare?

RD: I did, and then I slowly went into mostly musical theatre and went to college, got an Acting degree and then got my Master’s in Acting from Brown. And then I kept getting pulled into doing large-scale theatre outdoors. I ran a large outdoor theatre in Kentucky for five years, and then I also did a lot of new plays in Chicago and Providence, but my real interest is really in big outdoor events. So that’s how I got pulled into coming to Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.

M: What are some things about Shakespeare that you like?

RD: It’s not ordinary. I mean, he didn’t write just like, a day at the mall.  [He wrote about] extraordinary moments that call for extraordinary language. And that’s what I love about it.  His language and stories are universal, and they’re timely. At almost any moment in our lives, we can find some type of moment or character or piece of the story that we can relate to as human beings.

M: What do you think about modernized Shakespeare vs. more traditional stagings? Do you think it helps make Shakespeare more accessible to the general public, to do modern dress?

RD: I have a pretty firm stance on this. I believe that you should always start with story, and then from story a director can layer in concepts or, perhaps framing it in a different time period, as long as it’s supporting the story—Shakespeare’s story. That’s what I like. As far as modernizing it or changing the story, we have an initiative called Shake38 where we encourage people to take Shakespeare’s text and perform it and live in it anyway they see fit. So, I’m all for good storytelling. As a director, I land in a place of wanting to take Shakespeare’s text and make as lively and as crackling as possible. I’m always a proponent of having Shakespeare evolve—having his stories mean something different for a new generation, because we’re in a generation now where young people get their information and create in an instant. They can create photography, video, music in an instant, text in an instant. So I’m all for letting him evolve.

M: What’s the most unusual full-length concept for a Shakespeare production you’ve seen?

RD: I did see a production of the Scottish Play [Macbeth] done entirely in Japanese, as a Japanese action film, with subtitles and the actors performing in Japanese, but someone was speaking English over it.

M: Where was that?

It was at a regional theatre in Oregon. It was pretty stunning. I mean, it totally made the play… you really listened to the language and you really listened to the story. So that’s definitely a memorable one. I’m trying to think of any other ones that have really blown my mind.  I saw a six person Comedy of Errors that I thought was going to impossible to perform, but was the best production of The Comedy of Errors I have ever seen. That was at the Court Theatre in Chicago.

M: What made you decide to take the job at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis?

RD: The experience. I initially did not think I wanted the job, and so I snuck down here one night from Chicago. I bought a ticket on my own and got on a train and came down and I saw 4,000 people watching The Merry Wives of Windsor for free, and from that moment I was sold. The high quality of the work and the accessibility was what sold me on it.

M: About Twelfth Night specifically—it’s the first SFSTL production you’re directing.  Did you decide to direct because of the play that was chosen, or did you choose the play because you wanted to direct?  

RD: As the leader of the institution, I’m also the one picking the shows and planning them out. I had initially not planned on directing, but when the slot came open and looking at the availability of directors that we use and other directors that I want to use, it just became apparent at one moment, I think about this time a year ago, that this was the best moment for me to direct. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play.  I love how music can help tell stories, and Twelfth Night uses music more than any other Shakespeare play. So with all these things lining up, it seemed like the best moment, and my staff and board were incredibly encouraging, so I jumped into it and did it. I won’t be directing every year, though (laughs).

M: It does seem like it takes a whole year to put together a production, and I was wondering about the process. How do you pick the plays, and what is the timeline like for getting a show ready to do?

RD: Well, I’m fairly certain of the plays that I’m going to be doing for the next three years, so that’s about as far out as I’ll schedule. And what it takes is, it’s like you’re putting together a really big dinner party, and you’ve got to make sure that all the people that you want at that party are available when you need them. So it takes a long time to get the director—the director is always the first thing that I start with, and then from there working on the design team that he or she wants to work with, and then actors. Shakespeare is a pretty demanding type of performance, and demands an experienced director who can handle text. Our audiences love really high quality text performances.  So, getting all those things lined up takes a few years. We’re working about two to three years out at a time.

As far as selecting them, Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, so not all of them are A+ plays. There are A plays, there are B-level plays and there are some C-level plays. So what I try to do is make sure that we’re doing plays that are going to attract people, interest people, but also give them the full scope of Shakespeare’s writing, from comedy to tragedy to history to romance—from his incredibly well-written plays like Twefth Night to some of his B-level plays. I’m trying to give a full breadth and scope of his work.

M: Are you still alternating? You were doing a tragedy or history one year, and then a comedy the next year…?

RD: I describe it as light and dark. Shakespeare wrote many more darker plays than he did lighter plays, so we do tend to do that—light, dark [alternating]. Doing comedy, tragedy—I’m eventually going to run out of comedies because he wrote a lot more tragedy and history. So yeah—light, dark is what I try to do.

M: What’s your favorite Shakespeare play that SFSTL hasn’t already done?

RD: Well, three immediately jump to mind. I really love Cymbeline.

M: I like Cymbeline. It’s a really interesting one.

RD: Yeah, I love the romance in Cymbeline. Henry V because I love the courage and the bravery of the king in that one. And then one that I don’t think we’ll be doing on the main stage anytime soon, but I do love Titus Andronicus, because I love the dynamic of family in that play, and how these people play out through their emotions and their actions and how they destroy each other. I think it’s fascinating. Now I do not plan on doing Titus Andronicus on the main stage anytime soon. I think on average there’s an act of violence something like every fifty lines in Titus Andronicus.

M: Yeah, I guess you have to pick plays based to a certain degree on how accessible they are for the general audience. (RD nods, smiles). How many people do you get every year?  Do you have a projected attendance?

RD: You know, because it’s outdoors and it’s free we don’t do any type of ticket sales or advance tickets, [but] we do count the site. We have a really great counting system. We have been getting over 60,000 people a year. We have been attracting very large audiences. Our average audience size is 3,000 people. Last year at Othello, 66,000 people was our total. So we tend to have about 60,000 + come see the show.

M: What are some of the most interesting comments you’ve heard from audience members at Twelfth Night?

RD: Well, I don’t know if it’s so much interesting as encouraging. [People] love the use of live music to tell the story. They love our appreciation for clarity of language, clarity of story. Like I said, I’m not a director who likes to layer in a lot of directing choices. I like to keep my Shakespeare clear, concise, so that that people can follow the story, not watch my interesting choices (laughs). But the thing that I’m most happy with is that people walk away saying “I understood what was going on. The story is clear. It’s concise”. That’s a huge compliment.

M: What are your impressions of the St. Louis theatre scene in general? Obviously it’s not as big as New York or London or Chicago, but what do you think of what we have in terms of theatre in St. Louis?

RD: The theatrical energy of this town is enviable for a lot of other cities. I mean, there is a breadth of work that’s going on in the dozens of theatres.  I’m so impressed that on any given night you can go see a play, a musical, a Shakespeare play.  You can go see just about anything on any given night, in almost any pocket of the city, too. I was incredibly impressed when I arrived here from Chicago, to see how much theatre was going on.

M: What are some of your favorite things about St. Louis in general?

RD: Well, I love the city in that there are so many accessible things to do. You know, we walk the Botanical Garden every single week. There are a lot of jewels here: Forest Park, the Botanical Garden, the Zoo, the Art Museum. I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and the accessibility of art and culture is top-notch in this city. That’s what I appreciate the most.

M: Now in terms of the future—there are a lot of things that SFSTL does, like Shake38, the main stage play, the school program. Are there any other projects in the pipeline?

RD: Well, next up for us is in September, we’ll be doing Shakespeare in the Streets. We spend a year in a neighborhood creating an original play about that neighborhood, inspired by a Shakespeare play. So September 19th through the 23rd will be Shakespeare in the Streets: Grove Edition. So we’ll be in the Grove, over around the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, and shutting down a city street and doing an original play.  That’s up next.  And looking beyond 2013, we have some ambitious ideas of how we can make Shakespeare accessible to as many people as possible, but to also enrich the cultural and artistic life of our city so that it’s competitive with a Chicago, a San Francisco, a New York, and Austin, Texas, that we can compete on that level with arts and culture.

M:  This is something I’ve heard a lot, and I was wondering how you would answer it. If someone says “Oh, Shakespeare-that’s boring,” what would you say to that?

RD:  Well, I would say Shakespeare didn’t write about the boring moments in our lives. He wrote about moments that we all can relate to. He wrote about first love. He wrote about obsession.  He wrote about revenge.  He wrote about jealousy. All of these things are not boring moments in our lives.  Every single one of us has had an experience in one of those areas. So when I [hear] “Shakespeare is boring”—when you sit in a room and watch and hear good Shakespeare, it will change your life.  It’s like seeing great opera. If you see a great performance of opera, it changes your life.

M: What are some things that you would like people to most remember about SFTSTL?

RD:  I think most importantly what I would like for them to remember is that Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is something that contributes in an incredible way to the quality of life in our city. It is part of the annual cultural calendar, and it contributes to the cultural fabric of who we are as a city.

For more information about Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, please check out their official website, linked in the sidebar of this blog. Thanks so much to Rick Dildine for this interview. 

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Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rick Dildine

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

May 25th and May 30th, 2013

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I look forward to Shakespeare Festival St. Louis every year. You get to see a top quality Shakespeare play outside in beautiful Forest Park with many fun pre-show activities, and it’s free! What’s not to love about that? This year, the show is one of Shakespeare’s more popular comedies, Twelfth Night, and as usual, SFSTL does not disappoint, putting on a very funny, engaging and musical production that more than lives up to SFSTL’s already excellent reputation.

The gender-bending story follows Viola (Kimiye Corwin) who is shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother Sebastian (Vichet Chum), and disguises herself as a boy to serve as a page to Duke Orsino (Joshua Thomas), who is trying to woo the melancholy Countess Olivia (Leslie Ann Handelman) who is grieving for her recently deceased father and brother. Meanwhile, Olivia’s kinsman Sir Toby Belch (Eric Hoffmann) and her handmaiden Maria (Candice Jeanine) scheme with another suitor of Olivia’s, the bumbling and ineffectual Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Haas Regen) to humiliate Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio (Anderson Matthews).  Little does Viola know, though, that Sebastian has survived the shipwreck with the aid of sailor Antonio (Michael James Read), and his presence soon adds further complication to the already complex plot involving love-at-first-sight, mistaken identity and romantic confusion.

Music is a key element to this production, with live musicians onstage performing Shakespeare’s lyrics set to the folk-style tunes written by Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra, sung by Andy Paterson as the amiable fool Feste with a clear, soaring tenor voice. In fact, music pervades and underscores the whole show, setting the mood whether it’s mournful, melancholy, whimsical or romantic.

The striking set by Scott C. Neale is also a vital element in setting the mood of the production, with its colorful, off-kilter Mediterranean-style villa with an outsized full moon beside it.  The costumes, designed by Dottie Marshall Englis, suggest a mid-Victorian setting and are as colorful as the set.  The duped Malvolio’s getup in the second act is a real highlight that adds to the comedy of the production.  I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say Shakespeare’s words “yellow stockings and cross-gartered” are quite hilariously interpreted here.

As for the performances, it’s a top-notch cast all around.  Corwin makes a strong, equally earnest and bewildered Viola, whose struggles between her attraction to Orsino and trying to do her duty are made poignantly plain. She also has just the right amount of affected swagger that makes her masquerade both obvious and believable.  Her scenes with both Thomas as Orsino and Handelman as Olivia are expertly acted, and her chemistry with Thomas in particular is notable.  Thomas does a great job of portraying Orsino as both determined and somewhat conflicted as his determination to woo the reluctant Olivia conflicts with his growing attachment to his courtier “Cesario”, who he doesn’t realize is really Viola in disguise.  Handelman portrays Olivia with a mixture of aggressive melancholy and lovestruck energy, and Chum as Sebastian also does great work in his few scenes, displaying remarkable chemistry with both Handelman as his sudden love-interest and Corwin as his seemingly long-lost sister.

I loved the cohesive unit that was formed by the affably drunk Sir Toby, the awkward Sir Andrew and the scheming Maria, and all three actors work so well together and make their scenes a real joy to watch.  Sir Toby and crew baiting Malvolio is a masterfully staged moment of side-splitting physical comedy that was reminiscent of classic slapstick comedy and had me and most of the audience laughing our heads off.  The real standout in this plotline, though, is Matthews as Malvolio, who is brilliant in both his stiff pomposity and his bumbling foolishness.  The comic sword-fighting involving Viola, Sebastian, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby was also well-done and extremely funny.

As evidenced by the description in this review, this is a show with a whole lot of plot, and all the various elements fit together seamlessly as portrayed by this remarkable cast.  It was a great show, and almost came across as a musical with the many songs and live musicians.  The outside setting of the production also worked to set a dreamy mood, and the overall effect was one of sheer delight.

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