Monday, July 7, 2014

MUCH ADO, ELIZ REX and ANTONY AND CLEO Bow This Week at IL Shakes Fest

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival has become a year-round entertainment option, what with a staged reading in April from the Shakespeare Project of Chicago and a Theatre for Young Audiences show -- this year Shake, Shake, Shake Your Shakespeare by Nancy Steele Brokaw -- that started in mid-June. But the real repertory begins tomorrow with previews of the three mainstage shows. These three preview nights offer 2-for-1 tickets, meaning you can score those platinum-plus seats you always wanted for half price if you can use two.

Michael Pine as Claudio in Much Ado
Much Ado About Nothing, the witty romantic comedy that pairs too-smart-for-their-own-good Beatrice and Benedick, is up first, previewing tomorrow at 7:30 pm and officially opening Friday, July 11, at 8 pm. This Much Ado is not the one you're used to from previous Festivals or from the Joss Whedon black-and-white movie that hit theaters last year. This Much Ado features an all-male cast. Why shut out the ladies? Illinois Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Kevin Rich is a proponent of something called "Original Practices," which tries to recapture the way Shakespeare shows were performed in Shakespeare's own time. The idea behind it is to open up Shakespeare, to make it quick and breezy and accessible to modern audiences, with the thrust stage, outdoor setting and fast finish time attributed to Elizabethan staging. So Much Ado About Nothing, as directed by Jonathan West for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, will take a bow in the direction of "Original Practices," with men playing both the male and female roles, just as you might've seen in Elizabethan England, a time when it was considered immoral for a woman to be on stage.

Given the fact that there are a limited number of roles in Shakespeare plays for women, anyway, I will admit I am not a fan of this all-male notion, especially when it means that a role like Beatrice -- witty, wonderful Beatrice -- is handed over to the guys. Sure, that's what Will himself would've expected, but we're here and now, when it isn't lascivious or lewd for a female to trod the boards. I'd prefer we take our cue from Abigail Adams instead of Queen Elizabeth I and "remember the ladies" when it comes to performing Shakespeare.

Deborah Staples as Elizabeth Rex
Much Ado's all-male cast is also influenced by the second show on the schedule, Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex, directed by Paula Suozzi, which previews July 9 at 7:30 pm and opens July 12 at 8 pm. Elizabeth Rex was written in 2000 and it has been well-performed since then, including a very good Chicago Shakespeare production in 2012. It's a perfect fit for a Shakespeare festival, given that Mr. Shakespeare and some of his actors are characters in the play. And the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has made that fit even tighter, using the plays that appear in Elizabeth Rex to form its repertory and pulling the actors from one cast into the others.

Elizabeth Rex begins with the end of a performance of Much Ado by the Lord Chamberlain's men, with Queen Elizabeth herself in attendance. After the performance, the actors retreat to a barn to rest. Queen Elizabeth joins them, in dire need of a distraction as she awaits the execution of a former favorite, the Earl of Essex, who tried to raise a revolt against her. The Shakespeare we see is in the midst of writing Antony and Cleopatra, and he takes note of who and what Elizabeth is to create the grand Egyptian queen of his imagination.

Deborah Staples and Todd Denning
And that is why Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Artistic Director Kevin Rich, is the third play gracing the stage at Ewing Manor this summer. A preview of Antony and Cleo is scheduled for Thursday, July 10th, with its official opening night set for Sunday the 13th. Both shows begin at 7:30 pm. Keeping the connections coming, the actress who plays Elizabeth  in Elizabeth Rex, Deborah Staples, will cross over to play the titular queen in Antony and Cleopatra, too.

Similarly, the actors we see finishing up Much Ado as Beatrice and Benedick in Elizabeth Rex will actually play Beatrice and Benedick in the full, all-male Much Ado About Nothing on other nights. Those actors are Christopher Prentice (Beatrice) and Matt Daniels (Benedick), and they'll showcase their versatility by taking on Alexas and Enobarbus in Antony and Cleo.

For all the details on all three shows, visit the Illinois Shakespeare Festival website. You'll find a printable calendar, ticket info, and the scoop on extra tours, talkbacks and greenshows, and lots more if you investigate the Festival site.

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