Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Theater by the River - Great River Shakespeare Festival

Last weekend, we headed down to beautiful river town Winona with some theater blogger friends to pay a visit to Great River Shakespeare Festival on the campus of Winona State University.

Although this is only our second year visiting, it's on our can't-miss theater list. (Check out what our friends Cherry and Spoon and Twin Cities Stages had to say about our trip!)

The mixed media piece Sarah Johnson created for the 
16th Season of Great River Shakespeare Festival is 
her interpretation of the varied productions. Learn more here
Great River Shakespeare Festival is truly a thoughtfully programmed theater festival, and each season has a theme with plays and education events that center around that theme. This year's theme, according to the GRSF literature:

"'Don't judge a book by its cover' - it's a tale that, turns out, really is as old as time and one that appears in many of the themes of our sixteenth season. The juxtaposition between what's without and what's within is explored in terms of outward title versus inward nobility, physical appearance versus internal identity, what the world perceives versus what happens behind closed doors and myriad other situations."

The four main shows of the festival are Shakespeare's Macbeth and Cymbeline, a new adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters, and No Child by Nilaja Sun. (Plus, a whole host of other educational and engaging programs, which we'll tell you about later.)

We started off our weekend on Friday night by plunging directly into the drama with Macbeth with Andrew Carlson as the titular character and Leah Gabriel as the Lady Macbeth. This production of the Scottish play, directed by Paul Mason Barnes, had a wildly compelling look with scenic and lighting design by R. Eric Stone and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, respectively. The sound design by
Scott O’Brien also beautifully contributed to the spooky atmosphere. 

One of the most interesting aspects of this production of the Scottish Play is that the witches (Anique Clements, Silas Sellnow, and Victoria Nassef) are also the household servants (in witch costume), so the delicious supernatural elements of Macbeth are a constant thread throughout the production. The scene with the children (the 'chickens') was particularly poignant and chilling.

Need a bit of a refresher on Shakespeare's play? Outside of the theater building, volunteers are handing out quick guides to the plays (see below). We loved this! Succinct and informative, we loved reading up on the play before even entering the theater. There are also preshow talks before all of the Shakespeare productions, another way to help you to enter the world of the play.

Macbeth - GRSF Play Guide
On Saturday morning, we headed back to GRSF for one of their Front Porch events, an opportunity to "to hear from scholars, theater professionals, and community members about the places where art & life intersect." Last year, we attended a fascinating discussion with Tonia Sina of Intimacy Directors International and have been so cheered to see local theaters utilizing intimacy direction (including, most recently, Lyric Arts's Legally Blonde).

This year, the Front Porch event we were fortunate enough to attend was a presentation by Feast of Crispian. Nancy Smith-Watson and Bill Watson, two of the three founders of the organization (based in Milwaukee) talked in depth about the intensive theater workshops that they conduct with veterans who are suffering Post-Traumatic Stress. How does it work? Their website gives a brief explanation:
"Using basic acting tools and techniques and the powerful words and stories of William Shakespeare, we help these wounded warriors be heard and seen in the expression of their thoughts and feelings. This allows them to more easily hear, see and respect the thoughts and feelings of others, reconnecting them with their own sense of self worth and with their communities."
Photo from https://www.feastofcrispian.org/
This wide-ranging and all-too-brief conversation covered why Shakespeare is particularly well-suited for this kind of work, how theater can help veterans process their pain in a safe environment, and a demonstration of their specific techniques, which involve feeding the lines to the veteran and asking questions that help them associate the words with their own experiences. They're training theatermakers across the country in this work and adapting it for first responders and other trauma sufferers. We look forward to hearing more about this wonderful work.

After a fantastic lunch at the charming Lakeview Drive Inn (which still has car hops, y'all), we headed back to GRSF for The Servant of Two Masters. We were first introduced to Carlo Goldoni's 18th century Italian classic by James Corden in the National Theatre's adaptation One Man, Two Guv'nors in London in 2011. We saw The Servant of Two Masters at the Guthrie Theater in 2012 (adaptation by Constance Congdon--very Theatre de la Jeune Lune-ish), and returned to One Man, Two Guv'nors at Yellow Tree Theatre in 2017 and adored it as much as in London.

GRSF's The Servant of Two Masters is a new adaptation by director Beth Gardiner and is charming and hilarious. We had on-stage and pit seating, so we were up close and personal with the actors, which we highly recommend. Every bit of this show was a treat, from the costumes (by Rebecca Bernstein) to the many musical cues (devised by Silas Sellnow who also composed the musical numbers) performed by cast members that underscored the action.
The Servant of Two Masters - GRSF Play Guide
This adaptation starts off with the cast members on stage getting ready and chatting with audience members. As the show begins, the actors (as themselves) discuss which show they should do. Discarded options include "The Demented Princess" and "The Two Trusty Notaries." After a hilarious audition where they choose their last actor from the audience--a recurring bit that never fails to pay off--the show begins. 

One of the elements of comedies like this (commedia dell'arte-ish) is that the line between hilarious and annoying is a thin one. This cast makes the most of every comedic opportunity without every becoming self-indulgent or too self-referential. As an ensemble, they achieve that perfect balance of ridiculous and serious.

Every single member of the cast deserves individual praise. Silas Sellnow, as the titular servant, makes the most of every scene he's in. Even his food-themed interjections are laugh-out loud moments. Victoria Nassif plays Brighella, the best chef in Venice, with the perfect blend of competence and mischievousness--and that WIG. Gracie Belt and Daniel Stewart play Clarice and Silvio as sweet and slightly dim lovers and every bit of them is funny from Clarice's wiggly blonde curls to Silvio's amazing spectator shoes. Christopher Gerson plays Pantalone the exasperated father and master of ceremonies with the perfect amount of slow-burn comic anger.

We adore theater performed in repertory. Only last night, we saw Andrew Carlson and Leah Gabriel playing the cold, calculating Macbeths, and in today's show, they hit comic highs as separated lovers. Andrew Carlson, in a wig that has to be seen to be believed, plays the dashing and ridiculous Florindo and Leah Gabriel is Beatrice, who disguises herself as her brother. Even though the play is a knee-slapping comedy, we were still rather charmed when they ended up together. (Spoiler!)

This production also featured some off-site performances (theater in a brewery or a bar? Yes, please!) and a "fidget-friendly" performance, which is a great way to describe a relaxed show that parents and caregivers can take anyone to see, even if they are uncomfortable in a conventional, quiet audience.

Our evening performance was Cymbeline. Quick! Summarize the plot! That's okay, we couldn't either. Thank goodness for the GRSF's handy play guides.

Cymbeline - GRSF Play Guide
According to the play guide (to the right), a Shakespeare scholar calls Cymbeline "a comical-tragical-historical-pastoral-dramatic romance" and that sounds just about right.

By virtue of a wildly talented cast and director (Doug Scholz-Carlson), we ended up wondering why more theaters don't perform Cymbeline. The play centers around the lovers Imogen and Posthumus, played by Anique Clements and Alex Givens. Both are riveting to watch. Givens also plays Cloten, Imogen's stepbrother, and his characters are so beautifully realized that it took us a while to realize it was the same actor.

In typical Shakespeare fashion, several actors play multiple characters and Melissa Maxwell deserves masses of praise as the most elegant and stately of queens, then, in act two, disappears utterly into the poor woodsman and father Belarius. (We'll see Maxwell embody even more roles in No Child the next day.)

Another standout was William Sturdivant, who was entertaining in every role he played, from a snooty Frenchman to the woodman's son to a Lord and seemingly many more. De'Onna Prince's fierce and strong Roman general Caius Lucius was a lovely counterpoint to her role as Cornelius, doctor and advisor to King Cymbeline (Michael Fitzpatrick). We can't say it enough, the entire cast was outstanding, and the play sped by in a fashion we're not used to with Shakespeare.
Company Conversation with Anique Clements, Doug
Scholz-Carlson, and Immanuel Simon
On Sunday morning, we dashed down to the Blooming Grounds coffee house for a Company Conversation which was to focus on the supernatural in Shakespeare's work. How lovely is it that GRSF offers the opportunity for their community to chat with the theater artists directly in a casual, friendly setting? 

At this conversation, the panelists were Doug Scholz-Carlson (artistic director of GRSF), Immanuel Simon (Apprentice Actor), Anique Clements, Leah Gabriel, and William Sturdivant (Acting Company) as well as a special appearance by The Servant of Two Masters director Beth Gardiner. All of them spoke beautifully about their work and we were sad to see the conversation end.
Alec Soth, American (b. 1969), Adelyn, Ash Wednesday, New Orleans, Louisiana, (2000)
chromogenic print, Lent by the Minneapolis Institute of Art,
The Alfred and Ingrid Lenz Harrison Fund.
Before we headed to GRSF for our final Sunday matinee, we stopped at the gorgeous Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) for a quick visit. Located in a beautiful building right on the river, the MMAM is home "to a a large collection of historical works by American artists spanning the length of the nation’s history." In addition to the impressive permanent collection, we were fortunate enough to catch the mesmerizing exhibition Alec Soth: Sleeping by the Mississippi, which "explores the landscape of the Mississippi River and people living along its banks."

We finished up our lovely weekend at Great River Shakespeare Festival with No Child ...  performed by the amazing Melissa Maxwell in the black box space, which we entered through a metal detector to find a room furnished with school desks and a blackboard, evoking the inner-city education setting of the play. No Child ... is a fascinating, one-woman play by Nijala Sun about a teaching artist (named Nijala Sun) who is working with students at a school in Harlem to put on the play Our Country's Good. Maxwell plays at least fifteen characters in No Child..., from the janitor who sweeps the halls and knows all the inside secrets of the school, to teaching artist Sun, to all the students, several teachers, and the principal. And looking back, even a week later, I can picture each of those characters beautifully. A gorgeous tour-de-force of an evocative and sometimes heartbreaking work.

Although in a short weekend, we can't see everything, we were sad to miss White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour, especially since this unusual play, where a single actor walks onstage, opens a sealed envelope and performs a play they’ve never seen or read before, featured GRSF favorites Christopher Gerson and Silas Sellnow when we were there. But apparently, you can't see everything.

This week also saw the opening of the Apprentice/Intern Company production of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. Many of this year's standout performers were interns and apprentices in previous years, so see this show to find out who your favorites will be next year. The Festival also offers an array of preshow talks, postshow discussions, and narrated set changeovers. We haven't attended all of these, but there's always next year!

We adore Great River Shakespeare Festival and can't wait to go back and visit them again next year. From the start of each show, which begins with acknowledgement of the indigenous peoples who originally lived on the land where Winona State University is situated, to the education and engagement, to the warm personal welcome of the Festival staff and volunteers, it's a thoroughly delightful way to spend a weekend.

Image of beautiful Winona (from Explore MN)