Photo Courtesy of Illinois Shakespeare Festival
by Douglas Edwin
The annual Illinois Shakespeare Festival is retuning to McLean County on July 11th and running through August 9th.
This years festival features an interconnected trilogy of plays, which includes Much Ado About Nothing, Elizabeth Rex, and Antony and Cleopatra, with one company of actors appearing in all three productions.
Though the festival has always used only one company of actors each year, Kevin Rich, second year Artistic Director for the festival, realized this fact was often unnoticed by patrons.
“I discovered last year that a lot of people didn’t know that we are a true repertoire company, which is becoming increasingly rare in this country,” Rich said. “Once patrons discovered that the actors were in the other show, they wanted to see them perform again. When I started hearing was happening I realized it was something I needed to get the word out about more.”
In his role as Artistic Director for the festival, Rich has taken an innovative approach. Last year the festival included a contemporary play, Failure: A Love Story by Philip Dawkins, a trend that continued this year with Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley.
“Every year I want to do two Shakespeare plays and one contemporary play, that is in the spirit of Shakespeare,” Rich said. “People sometimes question why a Shakespeare festival would do contemporary plays, and my response is that Shakespeare’s plays were new when he wrote them. I think if we really want to be a true Shakespeare festival we have to look for the next Shakespeare and nurture playwrights that are writing plays like Shakespeare wrote.”
This years contemporary play has direct connections to Shakespeare, and even including him as one of its characters.
In Elizabeth Rex Queen Elizabeth has just seen Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and spends the evening in the company of the actors. During this time, Shakespeare is writing a new play, Antony and Cleopatra.
To make this year’s performance of Much Ado About Nothing more like what Queen Elizabeth actually would have seen, the play is being performed by an all male cast and implementing original practices.
By having an all male cast the audience is encouraged to see how the play was originally written to be performed.
“It brings out the jokes and other messages that Shakespeare originally intended, since these plays were written for all male casts,” Rich said. “I’m not saying that I think every Shakespeare play should be done with an all male cast, but offering it at least once really provides an interesting look at the plays.”
All three plays this season will also include $20 onstage “Bardhead” seating, which allows for audience interaction during the play.
“We tried it last year with Comedy of Errors and it was hugely successful and wildly funny,” Rich said. “It is a unique opportunity for people to be a part of the play in a really unique way.”
Rich will also be directing Antony and Cleopatra, which has only been performed one other time in festival history.
“It’s one of those plays that everyone has heard of, but is rarely performed,” Rich said. “I think the reason for that is because it’s a giant sprawling play with tons of scenes, but we’ve streamlined it considerably. This year it’s really fast paced and there’s wonderful chemistry between Antony and Cleopatra.”
Each Saturday, after the opening weekend, the Improvised Shakespeare Company will be putting on a show. The company improvises an hour long Shakespeare play based on audience suggestions, and a title that the audience comes up with.
“They speak in rhyming couplets, make up songs on the spot, and weave in Shakespeare themes left and right,” Rich said. “It’s really entertaining for both people that are familiar with Shakespeare’s work and those who aren’t.”
The festival has performances every night but Monday during the summer at the outdoor theatre at Ewing Cultural Center and the indoor Center for the Performing Arts theatre at Illinois State University.
The festival also offers matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday during the season.
For more information, or to purchase tickers, you can call the box office at 866-IL-SHAKE or visit http://thefestival.org.