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A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Tim Ocel
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

May 10, 2018

Sophia Brown, Amy Loui
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The 3rd annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has opened with a highly ambitious main stage production. With this year’s festival concentrating on the playwright’s years in New Orleans’ French Quarter, it makes perfect sense that their headline production is Williams’s much-lauded A Streetcar Named Desire, which is set in that neighborhood in the late 1940s. Often considered Williams’s best play, Streetcar has been performed so many times at so many different levels over the past few decades, but this production is aiming to take a fresh approach, with some bold casting and directorial choices. It’s a stunning production not to be missed.

The well-known story follows the enigmatic Blanche DuBois (Sophia Brown), who arrives in the French Quarter from Mississippi to stay with her younger sister Stella Kowalski (Lana Dvorak) and her husband Stanley (NIck Narcisi), who is immediately suspicious of Blanche, who has arrived suddenly and announced she’s taken a “leave of absence” from her job as a teacher. Through the course of the play, more is revealed about Blanche, as well as about the controlling Stanley. Blanche is haunted by her past in more ways than one, as well as being threatened by the present, and by Stanley’s forceful personality and mistreatment of the devoted Stella. Blanche’s role as an outsider is emphasized by the rest of the characters, and the neighborhood itself, which is essentially a character in the play. Stanley’s poker buddies Steve (Isaiah DeLorenzo) and Pablo (Jesse Munoz) help empasize the Stanley’s primal, impulsive behavior, and their neighbor (and Steve’s wife) Eunice (Amy Loui) is at turns helpful and suspicious. There’s also another poker buddy, Mitch (Spencer Sickmann) who is different–more gentle, senstive, polite, but also something of a follower to the more forceful Stanley. Mitch is also attracted to Blanche, and they begin a tentative relationship that provides both of them with some hope, for a time. I’m not going to say much more about the plot, as well-known as it is, except to say that ultimately, this is a tragedy, told in Williams’ most poetic, lyrical style.  Everything–every character, every interaction, every moment of dialogue is important, and the brilliance of the script is highlighted here by the bold, incisive direction of this production.

Visually, this play is simply stunning, with the techical elements enhancing and augmenting the overall atmosphere and performances of the stellar cast. James Wolk’s detailed set essentially lives and breathes the French Quarter, with the emphasis being on windows and doors rather than walls. The world of the Kowalskis’ apartment and the world of the surrounding neighborhood are brought together through the use of this meticulous but open design. There’s also excellent, responsive lighting by Sean Savoie that not only helps set the mood, but changes in response to it. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are vividly detailed, with colors fitting the personalities of the characters and styles appropriate to the period and tone of the show. There’s also excellent use of sound by Amanda Werre and an evocative new score by Henry Palkes, bringing the French Quarter to life in an auditory sense to complement the visual.

The casting here is a little different in some roles than what has generally been done in other productions, with Blanche especially being cast younger than usual. This, according to the Festival’s press release, is to reflect Williams’ original stage directions and making Blanche around 30, which adds some irony to the frequent mentions of her age in the play. Casting younger works extremely well in this production, especially in the truly remarkable performance of Brown, who brings a mixture of hope and regret to the role, and a youthful energy as well as sense of gravity and gradual unraveling as the story progresses. It’s an outstanding performance, and the rest of the cast matches her, from Narcisi’s increasingly controlling, emotionally needy and ultimately brutal Stanley, to Dvorak’s adoring but increasingly wary Stella. Sickmann is especially effective as the conflicted Mitch, and his scenes and chemistry with Brown are especially compelling. There’s also strong supporting work from Loui, DiLorenzo, Munoz, and the rest of the strong, cohesive ensemble. Director Tim Ocel has staged this play emphasizing the relationships and sense of immediacy, and the result is profoundly effecting.

There’s only one weekend left to see this play. It’s a production I had been looking forward to for a while and it’s more than lived up to the hype. William’s briliantly scripted, poetic and emotionally volatile play has been brought to the stage in a dynamic, bold, youthful production that brings its character and setting to life with rich, visceral detail. The production closes Saturday. Don’t miss it. You have to catch this Streetcar.

Nick Narcisi, Lana Dvorak
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The Tennessee Williams Festival STL is presenting A Streetcar Named Desire at the Grandel Theatre until May 19, 2018

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New Jerusalem:
The Interrogation of Barch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation
Amsterdam, July 27, 1656
by David Ives
Directed by Tim Ocel
New Jewish Theatre
April 21, 2018

Jim Butz, Greg Johnston, Rob Riordan, John Flack
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s latest production is a thought-provoking, surprisingly timely one, considering it’s 17th Century setting. It’s also something of a departure for the playwright, at least from my own experience of his work. Still, it’s an intriguing, extremely well-scripted play that raises a lot of questions and boasts a particularly excellent cast.

David Ives is known for witty, intelligent and somewhat outrageous comedies–mostly, but not all adapted from plays by 18th and 19th Century playwrights, although sometimes he has veered into darker subject matter as in Venus In Fur. I’ve seen several of his plays in production in St. Louis and have greatly enjoyed them. This play is different, though, in tone as well as subject matter, from most other Ives plays I have seen. While New Jerusalem certainly has its witty moments, it’s more of a straightforward drama than anything I’ve seen by this playwright before. It is set in the past, though, and shines the light on an important figure in philosophy, and on a pivotal moment in his life. Baruch de Spinoza (Rob Riordan), known to his friends as “Bento”, is an active member of his synagogue in Amsterdam, although the local authorities have been unhappy with some of the philosphies he has been lately espousing. Viewing this as a disruption to society, city official Abraham van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz) brings charges against Spinoza and demands that his congregation leaders, Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Greg Johnston) and Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera (John Flack), do something about Spinoza’s troublemaking philosophies. More specifically, he seeks to have Spinoza excommunicated from the congregation. Mortera and Ben Israel, who have known Spinoza for years and view him as a beloved friend, are initially supportive of Spinoza, but as other accusers and witnesses are brought forward, including Van Valkenburgh’s nephew, Simon de Vries (Will Bonfiglio), who has been a close friend of Spinoza’s but has been secretly spying on him. There’s also Spinoza’s half-sister, Rebekah (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who has her own reasons for accusing and disliking her half-brother; and the daughter of Spinoza’s landlord, Clara van den Enden (Karlie Pinder), who has a semi-romantic attachment to Spinoza despite their religious differences (she is a Christian). Through the course of the play, Spinoza boldly, unapologetically defends his beliefs but deals with the emotional consequences of the conflict with his friends and accusers. He also challenges the system that seems to subordinate the Jewish community in Amsterdam and favor the Christian church, as well as the concept of religious influence on government, and government’s role in dictating what a person believes and the expression of those beliefs. The play also expertly portrays the interpersonal and emotional conflicts and sometimes divided loyalties between the characters.

The casting here is impeecable, led by Riordian in a dynamic, impressive performance as the witty, stubborn, and concientious Spinoza. His presence and chemistry with the rest of the cast are excellent, and he makes an ideal central figure in this production. There’s also strong work from Butz as the intractable van Valkenburgh; Flack as Spinoza’s increasingly disillusioned mentor, Rabbi Mortera; Bonfiglio as the conflicted Simon; and Theby-Quinn as the confrontational Rebekah. Johnston as Ben Israel and Pinder as Clara are excellent, as well. The various conflicts and issues are humanized very well in this play, represented by these very well-drawn and expertly portrayed characters.

Technically, this play is strong as well, as is usual for New Jewish Theatre. Director Tim Ocel has staged the play in the round, with Peter and Margery Spack’s set representing a “dock” or “ring” of sorts, as the audience is included as spectators to the trial. There’s also effective lighting by John Ontiveros. The costumes by Michele Friedman Spiler are suitably detailed, as are Margery Spack’s props. There’s a strong evocation of time and place in this play, putting the audience right into the story in an effective way.

Unfortunately, due to travel, I was unable to attend New Jerusalem until the night before it closed, so there aren’t any more chances to see it. I was glad to be able to catch it, however.  It’s a thoroughly compelling play, raising issues that are particularly relevant in today’s political climate, and the performances are especially memorable. It’s another top-notch production from New Jewish Theatre.

John Flack, Rob Riordan
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

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Old Wicked Songs
by Jon Marans
Directed by Tim Ocel
New Jewish Theatre
March 17, 2016

 

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Old Wicked Songs is a story of a teacher and a student who are ostensibly here to study music, but who learn much more than that as their relationship progresses. It’s a play I hadn’t seen before, but am very glad now to have been given that opportunity by means of the current production from New Jewish Theatre.  It’s a superbly cast production, and it’s not to be missed.

The story takes place at the studio of music professor Josef Mashkan (Jerry Vogel) in Vienna, Austria in 1986. A young American piano student, Stephen Hoffman (Will Bonfiglio) has just arrived in the country with the intention of studying to become an accompanist. Stephen isn’t happy when he finds out that Mashkan isn’t the piano professor, but a singing teacher, and Stephen must study singing for three months before he can begin his piano instruction with the professor from whom he had wished to learn. The initially defensive, guarded Stephen is suspicious of the more demanding Mashkan at first, and this first meeting begins a series of instruction sessions and a relationship that will eventually change the lives of both men, who both have secrets they wish to hide.  They’re studying Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe, with lyrics by the poet Heinrich Heine. Through the course of playing, singing, and discussing the songs and their meanings, as well as events in their own lives and the history of Vienna, Austria, and neighboring Germany, the two men learn more about each other and learn that there is more to both of them than they had initially thought. This all takes place against a backdrop of political controversy in Austria as Kurt Waldheim, whose military service in the German army during World War II was being called into question internationally.  Austria’s attitudes toward its own history involving the Nazi regime, as well as the memory of the Holocaust and its effect on those who have survived as well as the generations born after the war, become major issues in the play, as both Stephen and Mashkan’s personal stories eventually reveal.

This is an intensely personal play, and the love of music and poetry pervades it. The relationship between music and emotion, as well as joy and sadness, is emphasized by Mashkan, and both his life and Stephen’s directly illustrate that relationship as the story unfolds. The two actors here are perfectly cast. Vogel portrays the joy and the sadness of Mashkan’s life, as well as his deep love of music, with vivid clarity in a sensitive, engaging and at times heartbreaking performance. Bonfiglio is equally brilliant as Stephen, whose emotional journey throughout the play is clearly portrayed on Bonfiglio’s expressive face. Both actors display strong voices, as well, singing the songs with energy and passion, in English as well as German as the story’s progression necessitates.

As usual for New Jewish Theatre, the technical aspects of this production are also excellent. The set by Dunsi Dai is richly detailed, bringing a sense of authenticity to this representation of a music professor’s studio in an aging building. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, suit the characters well, and Stephen’s clothes in particular serve to reflect his character’s growth throughout the course of the play. There’s also strong, atmospheric lighting by Maureen Berry and excellent sound design by Robin Wetherall.

This is a play about a student and a teacher, but it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about a love of music and song, and also about joy, regret, secrets and the importance of communication, as well as a person’s relationship with culture and history. It’s an expertly crafted play that presents characters with well-realized life stories that are memorably portrayed by two excellent actors at their finest. It’s the best production I’ve seen in St. Louis so far this year.

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Old Wicked Songs at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until April 3, 2016.

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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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