In Shakespeare’s day, the audience let their voices be heard, boisterously sharing their opinions and pelting villains with orange rinds.
The ISF is expanding in its 2020 season, adding an additional play to the rotation, as well as starting the season several weeks early. That additional play and early start are because of a show so popular that audiences clamored for a return engagement, according to John Stark, artistic director for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington.
“People kept asking about when 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)' would be coming back,” Stark explained. “We produced it in 2008 and 2011, and it’s been one of the most popular plays that’s been produced at Ewing Theater.”
“I found a way to do it in 2020 by putting it on as an opening act to the season. And so, we’re going to be doing it in early June, which is a little unusual for us. It will be a stock run, opening for eight performances and then be done. And then we’ll mount the other three shows, as we have usually done in the past.”
The other three shows include a new telling of a classic work, a play with a few, shall we say, problems, plus a Shakespearean heavy hitter that comes to the staged armed with its own curse. Or so they say.
On the lighter side is “One Man, Two Guvnors.” (Which can be said straight or with a cheeky English accent.) Based on “The Servant of Two Masters” by Carlo Goldoni, this updated version by Richard Bean is set in the swinging ’60s of Brighton, England, and features an ambitious servant who become entangled in a web of intrigue, romance and a bit of crime.
“I was looking for one non-Shakespeare play to present to our audience,” Stark said. “I like it to have some connection to Shakespeare or classic theater.”
“This play is hilarious! It’s not often when you read a play and while you're reading by yourself you laugh out loud. It’s farce and we look forward to it being a hilarious romp.”
There’s another comedy running in the ISF season – except that it has a problem. Well, more than one problem. And that’s why “Measure for Measure” is commonly referred to as one of Shakespeare’s "problem" plays. Interestingly, it’s those very problems that make it enticing for producers today because the core conflict reflects ongoing struggles.
“We're seeing it done a few times around the nation now,” Stark revealed. “And the problem is the ending. It’s considered a comedy by scholars, except that a lot of the themes and the plot line do not feel very comedic.”
The story involves a novice nun who is being blackmailed into surrendering her virtue in exchange for her brother’s life.
“It presents real dilemmas for the audience. It has ties to the #MeToo movement in our culture right now,” Stark said.
The play is also problematic in some of the character’s motivations, plot devices and a humdinger of a cliffhanger ending. (Sorry, so spoilers here.) Stark said his production team has until next summer to solve the plot problems.
But what are plot holes against a lingering curse? Alleged curse, of course. Rumors of a curse have dogged “Macbeth” for centuries. Legend has it that disaster is ever lurking behind the scenes and that to even speak the name of the play is to court trouble.
The fourth play in the ISF season is one of its most popular offerings – 2020 will mark the 6th time “Macbeth” has been produced at Ewing Theater.
“It’s well known,” Stark said of his choice. “The characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are some of the most famous characters in all of Shakespeare’s works. I was looking for a tragedy and this one spoke to me. There’s always something going on with connection to our world, with the corruption of power. It’s almost always relevant, unfortunately,” Stark added ruefully. “Because these things carry on. In some way, there’s always ties to things going on in our world. And 'Macbeth' examines those.”
Although the play is still strikingly modern in its bold examinations of power and corruption, Stark said the setting will be removed from today.
“We’ll be looking back into an earlier culture. In terms of a reference, the one we’ve talked most about is 'The Vikings' series from The History Channel. So, lots of fur and leather,” he laughed.
Stark doesn’t tremble at the notion of a "Macbeth" curse. “But it is fun,” he conceded. “Supposedly there are famous productions where things have gone wrong. I think it’s all about the culture around witches and prophesy. It was written at a time when kings believed in witches and prophecy. And I think it’s carried on because of these characters being so tied to sorcery and in some interpretations what they make Macbeth do. I don’t quite buy that viewpoint, either.”
“But it’s interesting and it’s fun. I think it’s the same reason why we like Halloween and horror films. We find these things interesting about how these ideas play on human frailty.”
The Illinois Shakespeare Festival runs June 4 – Aug. 8.
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