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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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Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Mike Donahue
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 22, 2015

Jay Stratton, Shirine Babb Photo by J. David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jay Stratton, Shirine Babb
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis 

It’s one of my favorite times of the year in St. Louis again.  That’s the time for free Shakespeare in Forest Park, where top-notch local and national performers and technicians put on a production in front of thousands in the green fields of Shakespeare Glen, brought to us by the excellent team behind Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. This year, the set looks like an abstract art piece, the costumes are richly detailed, the the performances strong and memorable as the the Festival takes on the Bard’s historical tragedy Antony and Cleopatra.

I had read  Antony and Cleopatra back in college and had seen the old BBC filmed version of it, but it had been a long time since I last saw this play. It’s somewhat surprising seeing it after all this time, as the story plays out as a bit of a melodrama, and, at least in this production, the leads come across as a pair of self-obsessed, hyper-hormonal teenagers.  They’re both obviously older than that, but this has an air of “high school” about it, as Marc Antony (Jay Stratton) petulantly defies his fellow Roman leaders Octavius (Charles Pasternak) and Lepidus (Gary Glasgow) so he can hang out in Egypt with his paramour Cleopatra (Shirine Babb). Cleopatra then gets jealous when Antony’s wife dies and he has to go back to Rome and make a political marriage with Octavius’s sister, Octavia (Raina K. Houston). Cleopatra is entertained at her own court by her handmaidens Charmian (Kari Ely) and Ira (also Houston), and the droll eunuch Mardian (Alan Knoll), while Antony gets involved in a sea battle that Cleopatra’s navy runs (or sails) away from. Then Antony gets mad at Cleopatra, but they kiss and make up.  Then there’s more intrigue involving Antony’s various followers and another failed sea battle, whereupon the tragedy happens, involving botched suicide attempts, swords and the infamous poisonous snakes and one of my favorite Shakespearean stage directions (Cleopatra “applies an asp”).

This show plays out as much lighter than I had remembered, with a few strong dramatic elements to keep it grounded.  The cast here, made up of some excellent out-of-town and local performers, is mostly first-rate.  Babb–as the vain  and impetuous Cleopatra–and Pasternak–as the more mature, imperially commanding Octavius–are the biggest standouts.  Both possess the regal bearing, strong stage presence and rich, resonant voices required for their roles, and they play them with style and substance.  Babb’s best moments are with Ely and Houston as her handmaidens, and her chemistry with Stratton’s indecisive Antony is good.  Pasternak, who was so dynamic as Hotspur in last year’s Henry IV, makes a memorable return here as the very much in control Octavius. There are also memorable performances from Ely as the loyal Charmian, Conan McCarty as Antony’s conflicted follower Enobarbus, Houston as both Iras and Octavia, and Knoll as Mardian. It’s a well-cast ensemble all around, with a great deal of energy and command of Shakespeare’s language.

Technically, this show is top-notch as well. The set, designed by Scott C. Neale,  is more modern in style, with an abstract suggestion of ancient classical columns coated in shiny, iridescent gold foil. The richly appointed costumes by Dottie Marshall Inglis are more literally classical, with some modern touches like trousers and boots for Cleopatra in her war scenes. The colors–rich reds, purples and blues, along with the ubiquitous gold trim–are vibrant and fittingly regal. There’s also striking lighting from John Wylie and Rusty Wandall’s crisp, clear sound design that helps to make the play approachable in its outdoor setting. The play also features an excellent use of atmospheric music by composer Greg Mackender, and some memorable special effects involving water cannons that drew applause from the audience.

One of the many great things about Shakespeare is that his plays can be easily set in all sorts of different ways, both classical and modern. With this production of Antony and Cleopatra, SFSTL has brought St. Louis audiences the best of both of those worlds.  It’s a classical drama with some modern sensibilities and and strong sense of style. It’s educational and thoroughly entertaining.

Charles Pasternak, Raina K. Houston Photo by J. David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Charles Pasternak, Raina K. Houston
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Antony and Cleopatra is being presented by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park until June 14, 2015.

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Good In Everything
by Nancy Bell
Based on As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Directed by Alec Wild
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis–Shakespeare in the Streets
September 18, 2014

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The fact that Shakespeare is in the public domain always makes me happy.  Some of the best plays ever written can be produced by anyone, anywhere, on basically any kind of budget. If I wanted to get some friends together and put on a full-scale production of Hamlet in my backyard, I totally could, and that’s awesome.  Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is a similar concept on a larger scale, staged not in a backyard but in a whole neighborhood, with an adapted script that brings the action into that neighborhood and brings the neighborhood into the plot. I love it, and after last year’s great production in the Grove, I was especially looking forward to this year’s edition, which is based on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies, As You Like It, and set in the upscale close-in suburb of Clayton.  Closing off an entire section of street and creating a kind of mini street festival is another bonus, adding to the whole neighborhood atmosphere of the production.  This year’s play, Good In Everything, has been  updated with style, wit and humor by Nancy Bell and cast with an enthusiastic group of performers. It’s a highly enjoyable performance that’s both funny and thought-provoking, and it’s even better than last year’s offering.

Playwright Bell has done an excellent job of updating a classic Shakespearean comedy to fit a modern-day Clayton mindset. Focusing on Clayton High School and the Clayton school district’s 30-year-old Voluntary Desegregation program, Bell has created a timely, optimistic piece that manages to be hopeful even while it sheds light on some of the systemic problems in our society, and how those problems are particularly manifested in Clayton.  There’s a lot of more superficial self-referential humor as well, with the frequent jokes about parking and other Clayton-specific issues. Bell skillfully blends Shakespeare’s words with modern language, sometimes quoting original passages verbatim, and sometimes adapting them. The cleverly updated “Seven Ages of Man” speech follows a hypothetical Clayton resident’s life from that of an infant in a Bugaboo stroller to a health-conscious senior citizen working out at the Center of Clayton.  There are jokes about texting, Wash U and SLU, the Art Fair, and more. There’s substance as well, dealing with serious modern issues such as racism, white privilege, equality in education, and the economic disparity between parts of the city and more upscale areas of the county like Clayton.  Bell manages to make a very Clayton-centric play that both celebrates the area’s strengths and points out its problems about as well as they can be covered in a relatively lighthearted one-hour comedy.

Here, Rosalind (Caroline Amos) and many of the characters are Clayton High School Students, mostly upper-middle class, white and politically liberal. Rosalind and her younger sister Celia (Zoey Menard) are the daughters of the school’s drama teacher, Kelly Duke (actual Clayton High School drama teacher Kelley Weber).  Rosalind is a zealous young activist with grand dreams of changing the world, and a belief that romance is stupid and will just get in the way of her causes. Then she meets Orlando (Maalik Shakoor), a new student from North City who is part of the Voluntary Desegregation program, and their attraction is instant and mutual, despite Rosalind’s previous protestations concerning love.  The story follows the basic plot of the source material, with the wrestling match being turned into a Quiz Bowl competition, and with Rosalind, Celia and their classmate Touchstone (Danny Guttas) journeying to Orlando’s neighborhood instead of the Forest of Arden, with Rosalind’s gender-bending disguise consisting of athletic attire and a baseball cap. The play’s cynical itinerant philosopher Jaques is a wandering vagabond called “Jake” here (Gary Feder); and Silvius (Khnemu Menu-Ra) and Phoebe (Wendy Greenwood) are locals from Orlando’s neighborhood.  All the mistaken identity, mixed-up unrequited love stories, and witty verbal sparring are all here, ably played by a wonderful cast led by Amos as the witty, zealous Rosalind and Shakoor as the earnest, charming Orlando.

Visually, the design is simple, as is needed in an extremely temporary outdoor presentation like this.  The backdrop of color-changing branch-like structures framing a screen, on which images of the various locations are projected, effectively evokes the setting.  A small student orchestra adds stirring atmospheric music as well.  I find it especially impressive in how this year’s production has managed to blend so well with the surrounding neighborhood, with the surrounding restaurants providing additional outdoor seating so their customers can watch the show. There’s also a small street fair, with vendors and a festive atmosphere that gets even more festive toward the end of the play, when the proceedings are turned into something of a dance party.

Shakespeare in the Streets continues to impress me as both a concept and a reality. It’s wonderful to see how this idea has been developed over the years into a more seamless blend of theatre and community celebration.  Good in Everything is an apt title, in that ultimately it’s an exercise in hope and celebrating what’s good its wide variety of characters.  Next year’s production heads to Old North, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Shakespeare in Streets does there and beyond. As for this year’s show, there’s only one more performance left, and I hope it’s the most well-attended of all. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos

 

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Henry V
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bruce Longworth
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 24, 2014

Henry V Cast Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Henry V Cast
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’s ambitious 2014 summer season continues this week with another thrilling production of one of Shakespeare’s best-known history plays, brought to glorious life by the same excellent cast and, aside from a new director in Bruce Longworth, the same crew that presented last week’s wonderful Henry IV, which will now be shown in alternating performances with this week’s equally wonderful installment, Henry V. This latest installment is every bit as impressive as the first. It’s big, it’s grand, it’s magnificently realized, and it’s positively heroic in scale.

The profligate Prince Hal from the first part of Henry IV is now long gone, and he has matured into the newly crowned Henry V, still played with strength and magnetism by Jim Butz.  In this installment, Henry is given the hero treatment, as he takes his armies to France to lay claim to the French throne, and the tone of the piece is triumphant and heroic, with the rich-voiced Anderson Matthews serving as the Chorus and narrating the action in epic terms. Butz and Matthews anchor this production and set its tone, as Henry shows both his regal bearing and his humanity as he deals with treasonous plots, mingles with his troops, encourages his soldiers and commanders as he prepares to lead them into battle, delivers the famous “Once more into the breach” and “St. Crispin’s Day” speeches with presence and authority, and finally courts the French Princess Katherine (Dakota Mackey-McGee) in a positively delightful scene at the play’s conclusion.  All the while, Matthews majestically and boldly recounts the King’s adventures with a rich and glorious voice, and the rest of the play’s characters’ lives intersect with Henry’s in various intriguing ways, from the noble and challenged French King (Joneal Joplin) to the pompous Dauphin (Charles Pasternak), to the earnest French herald Montjoy (also Matthews), to Henry’s former drinking buddies, the opportunistic and amoral Pistol (Jerry Vogel), Bardolph (Alex Miller) and Nym (Gary Glasgow) and Pistol’s young Page (Dan Haller), who is increasingly disillusioned with his employer and seeks to follow the King’s example.

In addition to the magnificent performances by Butz and Matthews, the cast is in top form, as a few of the players return to the parts they played in Henry IV, but most take on new roles. Vogel is even more impressive this time as Pistol, clearly portraying the character’s shifty opportunism as well as his attachment to his family and friends. Pasternak is suitably brash and affected as the over-confident Dauphin, and Tony DeBruno, Drew Battles, Andrew Michael Neiman and Glasgow are excellent as some of  King Henry’s proudly patriotic officers. DeBruno, as the Welsh Captain Fluellen, is particularly memorable. Also notable are Haller in an impressive performance as the idealistic young Page, Mackey-McGee as an especially witty Princess Katherine and Kelley Webber as her faithful attendant Alice. There is not a single weak-link in this ensemble, and many performers shift seamlessly between various roles as the story unfolds.

Technically, the heightened, more epic tone of this piece is well-reflected, with the same set (designed by Scott C. Neale) being put to use in different ways than before, as a giant English flag is unfurled as a backdrop on one side of the stage, and actors use every inch of the space (even the very top of the set, as the battlements of a walled city) and Matthews as the Chorus makes his entrances in various creative ways.  John Wylie’s  lighting and Rusty Wandall’s sound is put to excellent use in the battle scenes, with slow motion-style fighting brilliantly choreographed by Paul Dennhardt to achieve just the right balance between chaos and order.  Bold battle drums and stirring music by Gregg Coffin effectively punctuate the scenes, as well.

Even with the intensity of the war scenes, the chilling brutality of one scene involving a hanging, and the somber and contemplative aftermath of the climactic battle , the overall tone is one of Henry as a heroic figure and a worthy leader and representative of his country.  He is the triumphant leader, but he is not superhuman, and his humanity is underscored throughout. Butz is an ideal Henry, ably supported by the entire impeccable cast, guided by Longworth’s sure-handed direction.  It’s a fitting companion piece to the equally brilliant Henry IV and a truly triumphant success for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.

Anderson Matthews Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Anderson Matthews
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

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Henry IV
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tim Ocel
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 17, 2014

Jim Butz Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jim Butz
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has pulled out all the stops this year. In an ambitious new move, SFSTL has decided to present two plays this year in Forest Park instead of one, as they have every previous year. Technically speaking, it’s actually three plays, presented as two productions. While Henry V is due to open next week in Shakespeare Glen, this week marks the premiere of a condensed version of Henry IV parts 1 and 2, adapted by director Tim Ocel into a single presentation that tells its story very well.  Majoring on the story of Prince Hal (Jim Butz) and his journey from profligate prince to responsible King, this production takes a story out of history and instills it with a sense of immediacy and humanity.

Based in history and immortalized in Shakespeare’s legendary dramatization, Henry IV tells the story of the titular King (Michael James Read) and his rocky relationship with his son Hal as well as his struggle to retain his throne against a challenge led by Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Charles Pasternak), the son of the King’s former ally, the Earl of Northumberland (Joneal Joplin).  While Hotspur shows ambition and drive, King Henry laments that his own son spends much of his time carousing in taverns with the vainglorious and irresponsible Sir John Falstaff (Tony DeBruno) and his rowdy gang of ruffians.  Although the play is named after the King, the real central figure in this presentation is Prince Hal, as he faces the choice between remaining in his partying ways or taking up the responsibility as heir to the throne and joining with his father in defending against Hotspur’s rebellion.

Casting must have been a challenge in this production, since many of the actors take multiple roles, often with great contrast. Jerry Vogel, for instance, is nearly unrecognizable between his two excellent portrayals of the King’s loyal ally, the noble Sir Walter Blunt, and of one of Falstaff’s cronies, the coarse Pistol. Alex Miller, as both the jolly Bardolph and the warlike Earl of Douglas, also does an excellent job of creating two distinct and vivid characters.  Various of the more minor roles are also doubled up, and some performers who have one prominent role also show up occasionally in minor roles, such as Dakota Mackey-McGee, who plays Hotspur’s wife, Kate, and Kelley Weber, who plays Lady Northumberland. Both also appear as nameless women who hang out with Hal and Falstaff in the tavern scenes.  Overall, it’s a very cohesive ensemble with excellent work all around, helping create a mood of warlike seriousness in the battle scenes as well as unrefined jollity in the tavern sequences.

The four key players here do not alternate roles, however, and their casting is impeccable.  Butz, in particular, will play continue to play the same character in the next production, Henry V, as well.  A consummate Shakespearean, Butz has the commendable gift of being able to emphasize the humanity in some of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters, making them instantly relatable.  His Hal is alternately charming, vacillating, confused, sincere, and ultimately resolutely determined.  His command of Shakespeare’s dialogue is strong, and he even manages to vary the pitch of his voice gradually as Hal takes on more responsibility, taking on a richer, more regal tone in later scenes.  Pasternak, as Hal’s rival Hotspur, is a dynamic presence, always moving and full of energy and fiery charisma.  It’s easy to understand why he would be able to lead a rebellion. His climactic duel with Butz’s Hal is a dramatic highlight, as is his earlier scene of belligerent chemistry with Mackey-McGee as his insecure but outspoken wife.  Pasternak is new to St. Louis theatre, and he makes a very strong impression.

As Hal’s competing father figures, Reed and DeBruno are also excellent.  Reed’s Henry is suitably authoritative but also clearly insecure as well, and alternating disappointment and trust of his son are truthfully portrayed, especially in one scene near the end of the production in which Henry’s health is failing and Hal must seriously consider the impending reality of both the loss of his father and the responsibility of the throne.  As Falstaff, DeBruno isn’t quite as bombastic as other actors I’ve seen in the role, although he remains a strong and constant presence, at once endearing, brash and cowardly, as he plots intrigues with his cronies, verbally spars with the determined tavern hostess Mistress Quickly (Kari Ely), or tries to stay out of too much trouble during the inevitable battle. His scenes with Butz are especially brilliant, particularly in the scene where Falstaff and Hal take turns imitating King Henry, challenging the nature of their relationship to one another and to the King.

The overall look and feel of this production is decidedly stark and martial, with its booming soundtrack of warlike drums and Scott C. Neale’s simple set with thematic elements of iron and stone, and Dottie Marshall Englis’s richly detailed costumes add to the historic tone of the piece. The fight scenes are well choreographed by Paul Denhardt, with the battle scenes being a major dramatic highlight of this production. Ocel has managed to find just the right balance between the poignant drama, chaotic battle scenes, and rowdy comic relief. Hal’s journey from reluctant Prince to square-shouldered King is portrayed clearly and with riveting energy.

As epic as this installment of Hal’s journey is, however, this is only the beginning. Next week, the story continues with Henry V, and the plays will then be presented on alternating evenings for the rest of the run.  With such a profoundly moving, thoroughly engaging production as this, I find myself even more eagerly looking forward to the next part.  SFSTL has undertaken a momentous challenge in this latest project, and so far, they have more than lived up to their promise to deliver a timeless and timely, immensely satisfying and thought-provoking representation of one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated historical works.

Jim Butz, Tony DeBruno, Kari Ely, Alex Miller Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jim Butz, Tony DeBruno, Kari Ely, Alex Miller
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

 

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poster-henry-iv-v-web

 

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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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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