By D. A. Blackburn
In preparing to raise the curtain on its 13th season, The Michigan Shakespeare Festival expanded its offerings and added a second, out-state venue to its schedule, raising the bar and extending the reach of its programming. If the two gems selected this season are any indication of things to come, Michigan’s celebration of theater’s greatest bard has a bright future.
For 2008, festival producers selected works that illustrate the diversity of the Shakespearean cannon: “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Julius Caesar.” They then decided to take these main stage productions on the road to Grand Rapids, and scheduled a children’s show, Miriam Biskin’s “Three Spinning Fairies,” to compliment the two-week run at Jackson Community College. To keep Jackson’s theater audiences occupied while their beloved festival traveled to the west, organizers partnered with the University of Michigan’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society to bring the lighthearted comic opera “The Mikado” to the festival’s home stage at the JCC.
The curtain rose on MSF’s main offerings, “All’s Well” and “Julius Caesar,” on July 17 and 18, and the productions proved a perfect showcase for the attributes that make the festival such an exciting attraction for audiences.
The productions, largely, share a single cast, with most players appearing in both works. The casts are composed of widely experienced thespians, many with extensive Shakespeare credits on their resumes, and a host of younger student thespians, just beginning to venture into the Bard’s poetry. Likewise, the productions share a single design and technical staff, and a single universal set. They differ, however, in stage direction, and thus, feel quite unique in spite of their similarities.
True to its name
“All’s Well That Ends Well” is, unfortunately, one of the least-staged Shakespeare plays in the modern theater. Scholars often refer to it as a “problem play” for its turn-on-a-dime emotion, logic and ending, but the work is populated with some of Shakespeare’s finest poetry and wit. Its dialogue can be a challenge for even the most seasoned performers, but well-handled, it can also be some of the most gratifying.
For MSF’s production, director John Neville-Andrews has chosen to set the work during England’s Regency Period, some 400 years after the play’s unveiling. His decision to use the early 1800s is thematically sound, as historical themes draw easy parallels to Shakespeare’s script.
This updated spot in history also works well for costume designer Corey Globke, as he’s crafted some exceptional period garb to cloak the cast. It works less well for sound designer Eric Branson, as his musical choices seem historically confused, especially in the play’s final scene. Otherwise, Neville-Andrews’ setting change makes little impact on the work.
Adding to “All’s Well’s” reputation as a “problem play” is the difficulty scholars have had in classifying it. The story is that of Helena, a young but wise girl of low social standing, but great virtue. Having saved the life of the King of France, she’s promised the hand of any nobleman she cares to marry. Helena selects Bertram, the Count of Rossillion, but her affections are not returned. The tale that ensues is filled with deception, and punctuated with moral lessons. It is not a tragedy, but it’s not truly a comedy either. It is more a study of human nature than anything else, ending as the title implies, with a rosy outcome.
It’s in “All’s Well” that the diversity and inexperience of the festival’s cast is most evident, notably, in the show’s first act. More experienced performers, wisely cast in principal roles, navigate the work with grace. As the sickly, then vibrant King of France, Paul Hopper gives a fine performance; his grasp of the language aides a passionate performance. Likewise, Dana Dancho gives a strong showing as the heroine Helena, and Larry Smith brings good humor and form to the role of Captain Parolles, the driving force in many of the show’s moral lessons.
Many of the more peripheral roles, populated by performers of less experience, fall short, as actors plod through the complicated dialogue, reciting verse rather than understanding and internalizing it. A half-time pep talk at intermission seemed to loosen up some of the tightly wound performers, improving their portrayals and evening out the quality of the performances in the second act.
True to its name, “All’s Well That Ends Wel” closes on a high note, both in script and in performance, making any early faults forgivable.
True to its roots
“Julius Caesar” is a far more straightforward work. Definitively a tragedy, it’s widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s best works, and is staged frequently as a result. The work is based in historical fact, and though some license was taken with the time line, most consider the work a historical tragedy.
As such, director Tommy A. Gomez brings a very classical approach to the production, and the result is a thoroughly satisfying production.
In this, the second production of the festival, the cast proves much more even in performance quality, lending credence to the thought that opening night jitters may have been a factor among younger stars.
Hopper, again, provides an exceptional performance, taking on the dual role of Caesar/Caesar’s Ghost, though he spends little time on the stage. Both Paul Molnar and Rob J. McFadyen make stronger showings in “Caesar” than in “All’s Well,” and fittingly, find themselves in the dual lead roles of Brutus and Cassius, respectively.
Gomez’s direction is thoughtful and concise, and stays true to the story. It is not daring, but in remaining faithful to the work, he’s created a fine production, and pushed his cast to give it their all.
Again, costuming by Globke is appealing, and an added treat is the lighting work of Michael Beyer, which, coupled with good sound design by Branson, brings the play to life with a touch of realism. Donald Robert Fox’s utilitarian set, used in both productions, holds less appeal, but is purely functional.
‘All’s Well That Ends Well’
Michigan Shakespeare Festival. July 25-26 at Baughman Theater, 2111 Emmons Road, Jackson, 517-796-8600; then Aug. 1-2 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth Ave. SW, Grand Rapids, 616-456-3333. Tickets begin at $24.
Michigan Shakespeare Festival. July 24, 26, 27 at Baughman Theater, 2111 Emmons Road, Jackson, 517-796-8600; then Aug. 2-3 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth Ave. SW, Grand Rapids, 616-456-3333. Tickets begin at $24.