In love with Shakespeare
Illinois Shakespeare Festival offers a lively season
For 40 summers, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, part of Illinois State University’s College of Fine Arts, has presented professional theatrical productions in the idyllic setting of Bloomington’s Ewing Manor Cultural Center. This season’s offerings consist of the Bard’s historical drama Henry V and his wacky Elizabethan sex farce The Merry Wives of Windsor (here given a disco-era twist), along with a stage adaptation of the film Shakespeare in Love (1999), a fictionalized account of the genesis of Romeo and Juliet.
This summer marks John C. Stark’s first season as artistic director for the festival, but he is no stranger to the regional theatrical institution, having taught at Illinois State University beginning in 1991 and worked as a scenic designer with the festival beginning in 1993. This year, in addition to his artistic director role, he also designed the set for Shakespeare in Love. “I had to keep switching hats back and forth. It’s a change of focus, one minute you’re trying to work on the minutiae of ‘what color should that be over there on the set?’ and the next it’s ‘what are we doing for next year’s season?’”
Henry V follows “bad boy prince” Hal – portrayed as a party animal in the two Henry IV plays – as he transitions from his life of debauchery to become King of England. “There are amazing speeches which many people will recognize right away,” Stark said, including oft-used quotations such as “once more unto the breach,” and “we few, we happy few.”
Stark’s description of The Merry Wives of Windsor as “Shakespeare’s most farcical comedy” is borne out onstage in a production of almost manic energy. Set in 1978 – the year of Saturday Night Fever but also, the year the Illinois Shakespeare Festival was founded – the production is awash in a deliberately cheesy late-70s vibe. It’s reflected in the motor hotel-set, costumes ranging from bowling shirts to polyester suits, music choices and overall attitude, all of which perfectly fits the lusty chicanery of the goofy plot, which finds Falstaff trying to seduce some rich married women who quickly figure out his plan and turn the tables on him with absurd, slapstick results.
The entire cast leaps onto the opportunity for full-on nutiness, with memorable turns by Kelsey Fisher-Waits whose sashaying, duplicitous Mistress Quickly sets the perfect sleazy-silly tone (she plays the same role in Henry V) and Kevin McKillip, who as the insanely suspicious Frank Ford takes every opportunity to chew the scenery, including periodically adopting a broad, Italian-mobster stereotype persona. Fittingly, Steven Young’s hilarious, shameless turn as Falstaff dominates the production with the perfect mix of degeneracy and innate charm, with several moments of pure physical comedy which need to be seen to be believed.
Also part of the festival this year are performances by the Chicago-based, five-person Improv Shakespeare Company who create an impromptu, hour-long Shakespearean-style production based on an audience suggestion along with Double Double, an original play for children by Bloomington playwright Nancy Steele Brokaw, written for the Illinois bicentennial, in which Shakespeare appears as a figment of Abraham Lincoln’s imagination.
Remaining performances of Henry V will be held on Thursday, Aug. 2 at 7:30 p.m. and Friday, Aug. 10 at 8 p.m.; The Merry Wives of Windsor on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 3 and 4 at 8 p.m. and Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 8 and 9, at 7:30 p.m.; and Shakespeare in Love, Tuesday, Aug. 7 at 7:30 p.m. and Sat., August 11 at 2 p.m.
Scott Faingold can be reached at email@example.com