By D. A. Blackburn
The Michigan Shakespeare Festival has raised the curtain on its 15th season, and though organizers have been forced to grapple with the myriad challenges associated with diminished funding, they have, nevertheless, brought to life two inspired, exceedingly visionary interpretations of works by their chosen scribe, and a musical that might just be worthy of the Bard himself. The festival continues, with all three productions (and a special program for kids) running in repertory through August 2, at Jackson Community College’s Potter Center.
One of the most significant challenges for this season’s directors lied in mounting their respective works without the conventional set the festival has used in recent years. The set, a versatile, if somewhat unattractive structure, was discarded as a cost-cutting measure, forcing directors and designers to re-envision their productions through a creative new lens.
In this respect, this year’s MSF has become as much, if not more, a showcase for talent behind the scenes than it is for the festival’s actors. It’s also in this respect that “Tempest” director John Neville-Andrews earns his highest marks – particularly in his crafty approach to the show’s opening act.
It is easily the work’s most challenging scene to mount in a Spartan fashion – the scene in which the bulk of the cast is enveloped by a tempest at sea, eventually becoming marooned on the island that serves as setting for the rest of the work. Neville-Andrews brings act one, scene one to the stage as a glimpse behind the scenes – a first rehearsal motif – before sending the work spinning into space and onto the beach for scene two. It’s a very clever move, and more importantly, it works exceptionally well.
Another problem to be tackled lied in the matter of flight for the spirit Ariel – often done “Peter Pan” style – without an adequate number of stagehands (another cost cutter). As such, Neville-Andrews employs a large step ladder, wheeled about the stage by a troupe of nymphs. Though it sounds cumbersome, it too works seamlessly.
Though the festival has also paired down from four Equity actors to two, neither production suffers. In “The Tempest,” Ed Simone and William Irwin (both Equity) turn in point-perfect portrayals of the sorcerer Prospero and drunken butler Stephano, respectively, but their non-union compatriots perform with equal passion. Noteworthy highlights include Nora Ulrey as Ariel, whose poise atop aforementioned step ladder equals her acting prowess; George Shirley as King of Naples; and Patrick Midgely as the jester Trinculo, who Neville-Andrews has playfully re-imagined as a photographer.
As You Like It
Though faced with the same production issues, “As You Like It” director Tommy A. Gomez has turned the creativity dial up well past 10 to create an unorthodox, imaginative and lighthearted romance play.
Like “The Tempest,” MSF’s “As You Like It,” plays out on a relatively simple, though a bit more substantial, set. This does little to affect the work, but other creative decisions mark a drastic departure from more traditional productions.
As is often vogue, Gomez has opted to remove the work from its traditional setting in time and locale – though in name alone, the setting remains the forest of Arden. This approach is largely sound, but would benefit from a more firmly established anchor in time.
In the program synopsis, dramaturg David Peterson refers to the fool Touchstone as a “court jazz musician,” but the production’s costuming is more 1800s Western frontier than 20th Century Harlem. Likewise, the production includes a wealth of music – created and performed by the cast – that bears more a rough, earthy Southern-roots tone than anything else.
Gomez has also created forest dwelling characters with a distinctly rural Southern accent, which adds considerably to the jovial mood of the show. None of this really amounts to a flaw, so much as an element of confusion. Even just a simple program note about the setting would make the work feel more cohesive.
But all that aside, the cast of “As You Like It” is in fine form, playing up the work’s humor without losing sight of its underlying messages about fate, love and social interactions. As Rosalind, Jennifer Drew demonstrates genuine range and flexibility as an actress. Mitchell Koory creates an endearingly love-sick Orlando, and William Irwin’s melancholy Jaques is superb, delivering the famous “all the world’s a stage” speech with a tender understanding. Perhaps the best performance comes from Mark Gmazel as Touchstone. His fine delivery of the character’s comedic dialogue wins laughs with a warm charm.
Side By Side By Sondheim
For the first time in the festival’s 15 years, organizers have decided to produce their own musical production, and though it may seem an odd fit in a series dedicated to Shakespeare, they’ve succeeded in creating a gem.
The work is essentially a survey of music by the prolific composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (and a few others) strung together with a smattering of humor and history. For fans of the musical theater genre, it’s a virtual must-see.
The cast of four vocalists and two accompanists make a fine showing, with good musicality and true chemistry between songs. And it’s obvious that all find the work very rewarding. Matt Davis’ clear tenor and dynamic range as a performer is a highlight, but it’s accompanist Roxanne Bruner who steals the show, lending her silky, rich voice to the tongue-in-cheek “I Never Do Anything Twice.”
Other musical highlights include “Can That Boy Foxtrot” from “Follies,” “You Must Meet My Wife” from “A Little Night Music” and “Getting Married Today” from “Company,” all of which make particularly good vehicles for this ensemble.
And as for the tenuous connection between Shakespeare and Sondheim, the cast manages to weave a convincing linkage. Besides, with a production this fun, it’s easy to forget the context it’s staged in.
Despite the challenges that have marked the 2009 theater season, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival seems to be as strong as ever. With three worthy productions to their credit this season, it’s obvious that the creative spirit is alive and well in Jackson.
‘As You Like It’
‘Side By Side By Sondheim’
Michigan Shakespeare Festival at Baughman Theatre at the Potter Center, Jackson Community College, 2111 Emmons Rd., Jackson. Shows play in repertory through Aug. 2. $28. 517-796-8600. http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com