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Great Fun at the Great River Shakespeare Festival

This past weekend I had the pleasure of going to Winona to take in some great theater at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Within two days I was able to see three plays, and take part in two talks (one called a Front Porch talk, and the other Company conversation). The weekend that I was in town the topic was Intimacy Choreography. This discussion was immensely valuable, it was a great way to start of my time there as it gave me a new frame with which to see the plays at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Tonia Sina came in to town to lead these talks as well as some workshops. She is the founder of Intimacy Directors International, a great organization that I hope Minnesota and the Twin Cities theater community continues to have a relationship with. Tonia talked about how her interest in intimacy choreography came out of fight choreography, as both deal with the actor's safety. She spoke of the troubles that come up when intimacy on stage is improvised or not properly rehearsed. By choreographing the intimate scenes in a play using the five pillars; context, communication, consent, choreography and closure; in these scenes the actors are able to be safer, and more comfortable, and therefore the scenes look better and less awkward to the audience.

While at the Great River Shakespeare Festival I was able to see three out of the four shows that they have running in rep. Seeing shows in rep was very fun and something that I had not had the chance to experience before. It adds a new layer to the theater going experience, to be able to make connections between the different shows, and the different characters that one actor may be playing. All of the shows that I saw involved a play within a play. They also all dealt with intimacy, and the power around it. I may have not noticed this as much if it had not been for the conversations around intimacy, but like I said it these conversations that the Great River Shakespeare festival are having deepen the theater going experience.

The first show that I saw was Venus in Fur. It is a more modern show, being written in 2010 by David Ives. But the language and drama in the show feels much more classical. The show takes place during an audition between playwright Thomas Novachek (Doug Scholtz Carlson) and actress Vanda (Anna Sundberg) for the play Venus in Fur, and adaptation of the 19th century novel Venus in Furs. It is impossible to miss the power dynamics and intimacy present in this play as that is the whole purpose. Watching the show I felt like I was always on my toes, wondering what is really going on with the dynamics of these two characters. Who is in control and what are their motivations. The end of the play is left open and allows the audience to come to their own conclusions around this. There was a post show discussion which may help to clear some things up for some people. In my opinion the play was about someone who was upset with the way that women are often depicted on stage and set off to make a point, a message that I found very powerful in the current Me Too era. Other people in the audience saw the play as being about something else, and that is the beauty of it.

The second show that I saw was Shakespeare in Love. The play is an adaptation by Lee Hall of the 1998 movie of the same name written by Tom Stoppard. Before seeing the play, my fellow bloggers Cherry and Spoon and Minnesota Theater Love all noted that they found it strange that Tom Stoppard did not adapt the movie for the stage, I still agree but regardless of the reasons Hall’s adaptation is delightful. It follows our favorite bard as he struggles through writers block. Eventually with the help of his friend/theater rival Christopher Marlowe and his new muse Viola he is able to come up with Romeo and Juliet. Meanwhile Viola, while dealing with the reality of her upcoming arranged marriage, she dreams of being on the stage, even though this is illegal for women. So she dresses as a man to win the lead in Shakespeare’s latest show. The plot feels Shakespearian, the stakes are high and the characters are a joy to watch. I loved the staging by director Doug Scholtz Carlson and the use of the beautiful set by R. Eric Stone. Once again scenes involving intimacy, both wanted and unwanted, were part of this show, and the background given to me by the Front Porch talk on intimacy choreography framed this in a new way.

The last show that I saw was Midsummer Night’s Dream. It felt fitting to end a Shakespeare festival by seeing a show by the Bard himself. Although I have seen Midsummer Night’s Dream multiple times, Great Shakespeare Festival made it feel brand new. The cast is quite small for the show, at only eight people. The actors play multiple characters that are easily distinguishable because of the beautiful and inventive costumes by Rebecca Bernstein. The casting choices also felt very fresh, and was best seen in the choice to cast Zach Curtis as Puck. Zach is probably the tallest actor on the stage and has a great stage presence. His Puck was the perfect mix of fun and devilishly cunning, which is not the typical take on that character. The entire production was fun and engaged with the audience. I saw it at a matinee, so there were more children in the audience than at the evening show. They all seemed to be having a great time, laughing along with the rest of the audience to the wit of Shakespeare.

I had a great time in Winona at the Great River Shakespeare Festival, and I hope to go back in future seasons. It is a very well run festival with multiple things to do besides just the plays. In addition to the conversations and the plays there are also free concerts before every show with a food truck and a beer/wine garden. If you are looking to escape or a fun weekend road trip I highly recommend the Great River Shakespeare festival, it runs until August 5th.

Also check out what my friends at Cherry and Spoon and Minnesota Theater Love thought about the festival.

*First photo by Syndey Swanson, following photos by Dan Norman

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