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Illinois Shakes’ final weeks have arrived — and you don’t want to miss it

Two people dressed in blush-colored period costumes sit on the edge of a fountain chatting
Illinois Shakespeare Festival
Jessica Dean Turner and Brandon Burditt, as Beatrice, and Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing," at The Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

The end is nigh for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, but there are plenty of chances left to catch “King Lear” and “Much Ado About Nothing” at Ewing Manor in Bloomington.

Now in its 45th year, ISF has returned to pre-pandemic operations with “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” opening the season in June and, through Aug. 5, a rotation of “Lear” and “Much Ado” — both well worth seeing.

Jessica Dean Turner and Brandon Burditt play unwitting, eventual lovers Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s beloved comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing,” but that’s not all. Turner also plays Regan, one of three quarrelling sisters in “King Lear,” while Burditt tackles the immense and, in some ways, heartbreaking role of Edgar opposite the formidable Henson Keys as the aging, titular monarch.

Festival first- timer Burditt was excited to join the company after auditioning on three previous occasions.

“I’ve just been a fan of what this festival can produce,” said Burditt, who became aware of the festival while studying for his MFA in acting at University of Illinois. “Everything that this company has its hands on this summer has been absolutely amazing. I would love to come back again because this has been the best professional experience I’ve had thus far.”

Turner — a Jeff Award nominee for her role in “Rex Red” with Steep Theatre — was tempted enough to return to Illinois Shakes, having previously appeared in “As You Like It,” “Julius Caesar,” and “Pride and Prejudice.” Her numerous credits in Chicago include Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens.

“I think what is so great about this community is that you will see people from the Schnucks or from Constitution Trail in the house," she said. "John Stark, the artistic director, does a really great job bringing the community in and making sure the folks that he casts from all over this country feel like they are a part of this very quaint Shakespearean village.”

Shakespeare is a challenge for many actors, let alone rotating characters weekly and sometimes daily. Burditt said, for him, it is a benefit to be steeped in more than one Shakespeare role at once.

“It doesn’t feel difficult to go into a completely different space because he wrote two completely different worlds,” he said. “For me, there were some textual gaps that I couldn’t figure out with Benedick, until doing Edgar the next day. It’s not easy at all. I don’t want to give that impression. But because they’re two beautiful stories, I feel like I get to use everything in my acting ability — which is fun.”

An older man dressed in a red, royal robe kneels on the ground and gazes upward. He's getting a shoulder massage from a woman wearing a polka-dotted blouse, tan beret and subtle clown makeup.
Illinois Shakespeare Festival
Henson Key plays the title role in "King Lear," shown here with Quetta Carpenter as the Fool

Discussion abounds surrounding the universality of Shakespeare, and while directors Robert Quinlan and Lisa Gaye Dixon don’t play radically outside of Shakespeare’s sandbox, Burditt and Turner brilliantly fold contemporary stylings into their characters in their speech and mannerisms.

“With ‘Lear’ specifically, we are so anachronistic with it; we’re in so many different time periods with the costuming and set that we can play with how contemporary and present day I can be," Turner said.

“As long as we trust that our audience is smart enough to keep up with the language — I believe this cast does and this audience is absolutely smart — they are with us the whole time,” added Burditt. “The audience is a great teammate.”

The 45th Illinois Shakespeare Festival continues through Aug. 5. Tickets are available at illinoisshakes.com.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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