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Great River Shakespeare Festival 2019

This past weekend I had the pleasure of traveling to Winona, MN with some of my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, Cherry and Spoon and Minnesota Theater Love, to attend the Great River Shakespeare Festival. We were able to attend 4 of the 5 shows that GRSF is performing in rep, and take part in some of their weekend activities.

We kicked off the weekend Friday night with Macbeth. Although I have been going to theater for years this was my first time seeing the Scottish play staged, and the last time I read it was over 10 years ago. Great River Shakespeare Festival's performance was dark and moody. All elements of the production from lighting (Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz) and sound (Scott O'Brien) to costumes (Kyle Schellinger) and the set (R. Eric Stone) blended together perfectly to create the foreboding atmosphere of Macbeth's Scotland and Dunsinane, where things that might seem to start out hopeful with a promising prophesy fall apart quickly as the Macbeths get and then lose what they want. Macbeth is a dark and unsettling show, and the GRSF's performance captures this perfectly. We watch as Macbeth, portrayed by Andrew Carlson unravels from a loyal solider and Thane to a man solely devoted to obtaining and keeping power. As Lady Macbeth played by Leah Gabriel urged her husband through his murderous deeds, and then was horrified as she watched him unravel before the guilt over took her as well. And as Macbeth's former allies, Banquo (Benjamin Boucvalt) and Macduff (Christopher Gerson) fall or befall tragedy at Macbeth's hands. The scene with the murder of the Macduff family was particularly brutal, and very hard to watch. But it very effectively heightens the stakes and leads to a very satisfying if not sober conclusion. In the end I am very glad that my first time seeing Macbeth performed was at the Great River Shakespeare Festival.

Saturday brought a double feature with Servant of Two Masters in the afternoon Cymbeline in the evening.

Servant of Two Masters is the comedy of the festival, and brings and the laughs and levity that is needed after seeing the heavier shows in the festival. The classic piece of commedia dell'arte by Carlo Goldoni is adapted by Beth Gardiner (also the director of the show) into what I consider a comedic masterpiece. The show is family friendly fun, filled with music (by Silas Sellnow), food exclamations (Oh snacks!), well choreographed chaos, and a giant cat toy. I was lucky enough to be able to get on stage seating, for which it was enormous fun to be up close to the action. The story seems convoluted from the outside, filled with characters with long Italian names, disguises, mistaken identities, engagements that keep changing but the story is set up in such a way that watching it you are able to fully enjoy the story instead of being confused by trying the follow the action taking place (although I will not try to describe the plot to you here). Many of the same performers that we saw in Macbeth were also in Servant. It was a joy to see the characters that were playing so dark the night before play comedically the next afternoon.

Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's least performed plays falls under the category of the Bard's tragedies but I found it to be one of the most hopeful plays in the season. After all it ends with the players on stage singing in a chorus "Fear No More." The play Cymbeline gets its title from the King of Britain in 0 AD, but rest of the story seems to be fiction. It follow the King's daughter Imogene (Anique Clements), who marries Posthumous (Alex Givens) to her's fathers distain. She is imprisoned, her husband sent off in exile goes to Rome and things only get worse from there...for a time. Although all our favorite characters go through many trials they come through on the other side, seemingly better for it, freed from the people who held them back before. As a chorus of fear no more filled the audience at the show's conclusion I felt a sort of peace come over me that I didn't realize that I needed. After seeing the show the bloggers and I discussed how we always love seeing the lesser performed Shakespeare plays, that often do not neatly fall in the group of either comedy or tragedy, and Cymbeline is a perfect example of this rare gem. Some highlights of this tragedy were the very comedic performances by William Sturdivant as Guidarius, a Frenchman and Alex Givens as Cloten, the Queen's son and Imogen's intended.

Saturday we also attended a "Front Porch Conversation" in which GRSF hosted an organization from Milwaukee called Feast of Crispian who uses Shakespeare to order to help veterans with PTS (without the D because as they say it is not a disorder), and others dealing with trauma as well. It was a fascinating hour and a half. They spoke of the healing power of theater and Shakespeare, how the iambic pentameter not only mirrors the heart beat, but also lines up with our breathing. And how being able to speak through a character can help a person to separate from themselves in a way that makes it possible to slowly work through and address their own emotions. At the end of their talk they gave a demonstration with two audience volunteers to show how to play out the scenes with the veterans, feeding them lines and asking them questions, not to be answered but to affect how the line is delivered. It was remarkable to watch to the change that this could have and the affect it had on the two volunteers. If you want to know more about this organization click on this link here.

We ended our time at the Great River Shakespeare Festival with No Child... a one woman play by Nilaja Sun, masterfully performed by Melissa Maxwell. In the program Maxwell is listed as playing the character Ms. Sun but in reality she takes on over 15 roles. Each different from each other by the subtle differences in characterizations performed by Maxwell. The play shows us of the power of art over a troubled class in an inner city high school, while at time same time demonstrating how difficult the current education system can be on both the students and the teachers. The show clocked in at 1 hour and 10 minutes, shorter than the first act of many of the other shows that we saw. But in that short time a rich story was told by a single performer in the intimate black box theater.

The back of the pre show primers (a very helpful tool that I believe should be required for all Shakespeare performances) reviews the theme of Great River Shakespeare Festival's 16th season, "Don't Judge a book by its cover." All of the bloggers knew to look for a theme of the festival in the shows, but perhaps by fortune did not think it look for it on the back of the pre show primers. It was nice to reflect upon the connections ourselves, conniving wives, the presence of the supernatural, well intended servants, before coming upon the intended theme.

There is something very special about seeing shows in rep. Seeing the same actors in same space tell different stories in such a short span of time. The connections leap out and the stories feed off of each other in a way that is much different than just having season tickets and watching a season unfold over the course of a year. The Great River Shakespeare Festival runs through the weekend of August 2nd. I highly encourage you to make the trip down for a fantastic theatrical weekend get away. If you want more takes on the festival be sure to go and read what my friends at Cherry and Spoon and Minnesota Theater Love had to say about their time at Great River Shakes.

As a bonus the road trip down to Winona is fun, and only about two to two and half hours from the Twin Cities. Stops at Pepin, the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder or at Ellsworth, home of delicious cheese curds are not too big of detours across the river in Wisconsin.

*Image taken from Great River Shakespeare Festival's website.

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