Tuesday, July 12, 2022

2022 Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona

For the first time in three long years, Great River Shakespeare Festival is back inside the DuFresne Performing Arts Center on the Winona State University Campus. After their 2020 season was cancelled due the pandemic, they produced a wonderful and entirely outdoor festival in 2021 in a lovely space right on the river. But this feels like a return to festivals of old, complete with other events like discussions, ice cream socials, and pre-show entertainment. I never went to theater camp (although I did go to band camp), but GRSF feels like what theater camp might be like - an immersive theater experience with other theater nerds, plus fun summer activities. It continues for three more weekends and is just an easy and gorgeous two-hour drive from the Twin Cities, with lots to do in Winona including shopping, eating and drinking, arts and culture, and various outdoor activities. You can find all of the relevant information and purchase tickets on their website.

GRSF is producing three main shows this season utilizing one company of actors and a shared creative team:

Teri Brown, Raffeal Sears, William Sturdivant, and Ashley Bowen
in African Company (photo by Lloyd Mulvey)
The African Company Presents Richard III
by Carlyle Brown, directed by Corey Allen
This epic play is based on real people and events in 1820s NYC. The African Theatre aka African Company was the first known Black theater company in North America and produced Shakespeare and other classic works, along with new plays written by its owner Willian Henry Brown, thought to be the first Black American playwright. This play dramatizes this company's determination to do theater despite opposition from many, including the established White theater Park Theatre. In this story, both theaters are doing Richard III, and Stephen Price, the Park's owner, calls upon his powerful friends to shut down the African Company's production. Playwright Carlyle Brown (who's currently appearing in his latest work The History of Religion at Illusion Theater) uses this historical event to examine issues of race in modern theater, something that the last two years of pandemic, George Floyd, and protests have brought to the forefront, 35 years after its premiere at Penumbra, one of the longest running current African American theaters in the nation.

In the story, historical figures Billy Brown (Raffeal Sears), Price (a terrifying Doug Scholz-Carlson, GRSF Artistic Director), and actor James Hewlitt (Adeyinko Adebola in a commanding performance) are joined by two female actors who work as servants during the day, Ann (an appealing Ashley Bowen) and Sarah (Teri Brown), a storyteller in the tradition of the griots from the islands known as Papa Shakespeare (a warm, funny, and regal William Sturdivant), and a constable who does Price's dirty work (Benjamin Boucvalt). The multiple layers of stories going on include the racist-fueled rivalry between the two companies, a love story between Jimmy (who seems to care more about theater than people) and Ann, and scenes from Shakespeare's Richard III. The play beautifully illustrates the fact that Shakespeare is for everyone, not just an elite few, and that everyone brings their own unique perspective to the classic stories.

Twelfth Night twins Raffeal Sears and Alex Campbell
(with Benjamin Boucvault, photo by Sydney Swanson)
Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare, directed by Beth Gardiner
"If music be the food of love, play on!" Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's most musical plays (more on that a bit later), and this production makes great use of that. Brittany Proia as the clown Feste wanders through the play with a mandolin, singing the opening and closing songs, as well as providing music (and comedy) throughout. In this playful tale of various forms of love (romantic, unrequited, misplaced, familial), our characters make a mess of things and eventually mostly work things out. Alex Campbell and Raffeal Sears are two peas in a pod as shipwrecked presumed dead separated twins Viola and Sebastian, the former disguising herself as a man named Cesaria and bearing a striking resemblance to the latter, leading to all sorts of Shakespearean mistaken identity fun. The duke Orsino (Benjamin Boucvalt in a pink suit) woos the grieving Olivia (Tarah Flanagan, convincing in both her grief and sudden blush of love) through Cesario, with unintended consequences. Meanwhile, members of Olivia's court (including Lloyd Mulvey's hilariously drunken Sir Toby, Mark Mazzarella's ridiculous Sir Aguecheek, and Vanessa Morosco's mastermind Maria) are committing shenanigans with poor Malvolia's heart (Leah Gabriel in a gender-swapped role).

Tarah Flanagan and Brittany Proia in Always... Patsy Cline
(photo by Dan Norman)
Always... Patsy Cline
by Ted Swindley, directed by Braxton Rae
This last minute replacement for The Taming of the Shrew, which was cancelled less than a month before performances were set to begin (read GRSF's thoughtful and conscientious statement about that here), may seem like an odd choice for a Shakespeare festival, but it works, and was my favorite show of the weekend. The talented, versatile, and hard-working company switched gears and created this beautiful show in matter of weeks. On the surface it's a simple show, just two actors and a band, and a built-in familiarity with and love for Patsy Cline's music, but GRSF imbues it with their usual sense of playfulness, heart, and professionalism to elevate it beyond that. Falling somewhere between a play-with-music and a full out musical, Patsy explores the human side of the icon who left the world too soon (she died in a plane crash at the age of 30). But we see her as very human here, as she develops a friendship with one of her biggest fans, bonding over children, difficult marriages, and just being human. Brittany Proia once again shares her beautiful voice, but sounds complete different here than as Feste. As Patsy, her voice is so warm, rich, velvety, and most importantly dripping with emotion. As Patsy's friend Louise, Tarah Flanagan is the heart of the piece, speaking directly to the audience with such down home conviviality, sharing with us her love for Patsy the singer and Patsy the woman that it's infectious. 

The onstage six-piece band, music directed by Brittany, includes two company members who also appear in Twelfth Night - Jonathan Contreras on piano, with a few lines as the bandleader, and Mark Mazzarella on lead guitar. The band sounds great and is incorporated into the show with a few quips and cheers, and even open Act II with the Boot Scootin' Boogie. The show includes over two dozen songs, all of Patsy's familiar and less familiar hits, as well as other songs of the era, all well placed to tell this story.

Few theaters do multiple shows in repertory anymore, and it's such a great way to get to see actors in different roles, and see how these seemingly different plays speak to each other. The African Company is a pretty dense and historical drama, although not without playfulness and humor; Twelfth Night is a music-infused rom-com full of mistaken identities, but not without pathos as it deals with grief and cruelty; Patsy is a story of an unlikely friendship between two women with very different lives who connected on a very human level. What's the common thread? Humanity, storytelling, community, relationships, and more for the audience to find.

the stage set-up for Always... Patsy Cline (photo by Dan Norman)
The three plays share a stage and a scenic designer (Rodrigo Escalante). The diamond shaped wood-paneled floor points towards the audience, framed by two elevated platforms with stairs. In African Company, the platforms are bare, a curtain made of sheets or pieces of fabric sewn together hangs at the back of the stage (with projections noting locations), stage lights framing the stage. In Twelfth Night, the platforms are encased in colorful stonework and a tower, with greenery hanging everywhere, and set pieces (including box bushes) are gracefully rolled on and off stage by the cast during musical scene transitions. The bare platforms and stage lights return for Patsy, the band tucked under the balconies, with a jukebox and a few other details to transform the stage into a honky tonk. Costume designers and hence costumes are different - authentic period costumes for African Company (down to the Richard III costume that matches the historic record, at least per Wiki) by Harri Horsley, chic modern attire for Twelfth Night by Rebecca Bernstein (including the aforementioned pink suit along with a purple suit for Sir Toby, a colorful shorts suit for Sir Aguecheek, matching vest and bowtie outfits for the twins, and glamorous black silk pajamas and a couple of gorgeous dresses for Olivia), and an endless array of '50s era dresses for Patsy, also designed by Rebecca Bernstein. Lonnie Rafael Alcarez designed the lighting for Twelfth Night and African Company, Jacqueline Malenke for Patsy, and Nathanael Brown did the sound design for all three very different shows. The highest complement for lighting and sound design is that they're seamless and natural, enhancing the show without drawing attention to the design itself.

photo credit: @cherryandspoon Instagram
One of my favorite events of the festival is the Sunday morning "Company Conversation" held at a local coffee shop. This week's topic was the use of music in Shakespeare's plays. Despite being a bit late for the talk because hiking a local state park took a little longer than I expected, I found it a fascinating discussion; I always love hearing artists talk about their work. Sound designer Nathanael Brown and actor/musicians Mark Mazzarella, Brittany Proia, and Jonathan Contreras talked about their experience working on these shows, and how interpreting music is similar to interpreting text of a play. They also talked a bit about switching gears from The Taming of the Shrew to the musical Always... Patsy Cline. Shrew was going to be very musical (and even included the song "Crazy"), so they were able to take some of that momentum and apply it to Patsy, even though it's a totally different show, and get it up and running in just a matter of weeks. It's another example of the fact that GRSF hires some of the most talented actors, designers, creators, and crews in the country to produce this high quality theater festival that's more than "just" Shakespeare.

Head on down to Winona for Great River Shakespeare Festival - an accessible, inclusive, inviting, approachable, and immersive theater experience with a community feel.