Like the last few years, GRSF is offering three shows performed in rep. The entire 12-person company performs in As You Like It, the popular comedy about two cousins, daughters of dukes, who run away into the woods where they encounter happy shepherds and shepherdesses. Seven of the company members (plus one surprise cast member) perform in the less often produced The Winter's Tale, a story that is both tragedy and comedy. The remaining five company members make up the cast of the world premiere new play Inbroglio, about two couples who are neighbors and friends in 1970s Rhode Island, written and directed by the aforementioned Melissa Maxwell. The fun thing about festivals like this is that even though at first glance these plays may not seem to have much in common, when seen in quick succession with the same company of actors, common themes and ideas emerge, and often actors will play opposite each other in multiple plays, with relationships that are different, yet similar. In this way the plays begin to speak to each other and work together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
One thing that's different about this 20th anniversary season is the seating configuration. GRSF performs at the DuFresne Performing Arts Center on the Winona State University campus, which seats about 400 people in a traditional proscenium. They rarely filled the theater even before the pandemic, and now with audiences still decreased across the country (about 25-30% according to this recent Washington Post article), they decided to make things more intimate by setting up a mini thrust stage with riser seating on the actual stage of the theater. Seating is about 200, but it feels even more intimate than that. You can see the actors up close and personal, from the look in their eyes to the sweat on their brow to the spit flying as they speak forcefully in dramatic moments; you can hear everything clearly; and it feels much more like you're a part of the world being created (sometimes uncomfortably so when the world is dark, but we'll get to that).
|Christopher Gerson, Benjamin Boucvalt, and
De'Onna Prince (photo by Sydney Swanson)
|the full company (photo by Dan Norman)
|Eliana Rowe, William Sturdivant, Ashley Bowen, and
Chauncy Thomas (photo by Dan Norman)
The three plays share a simple set design (by Ivy Treccani) that works for all, and is tweaked with props and drops or curtains. The floor of the stage is a beautiful multi-colored wood that I would like to have in my house, with a small platform in the back, which allows for multiple staging areas. The Winter's Tale uses chests, trunks, and crates as set pieces, with a black curtain as backdrop that at times is removed to expose the brick back wall of the theater. As You Like It has a mostly bare stage, with a scrim at the back wall that reflects the lighting changes, and some colorful drapery that comes down from the ceiling. For Imbroglio, a wall is lowered in front of the platform (where the bedroom set is) to make the 70s living room feel more cozy, complete with period furniture in shades of brown, orange, and gold, and a bar with a set of eight glasses that almost all get used throughout the course of the play.
Each play has a distinct costume and sound design. In The Winter's Tale, we first see the actors in modernish street clothes, over which they don coats or dresses or hats to transform into their characters. The detailed and specific sound design adds to the storytelling without distracting from it, including for that famous bear scene. Act I of As You Like It has the characters in crisp black and white Elizabethan-modern-chic costumes, while Act II adds color, flowers, and butterflies. There is no sound design here, other than sound effects created by bells and other items at the edge of the stage. And of course, we have some groovy '70s threads for Imbroglio, just an endless parade of wide lapels and cardigans and jumpsuits. Between scenes we hear sounds related to the preceding or subsequent scene - shuffling cards or ice clinking in a glass. (Costume design by Sarah Bahr for The Winter's Tale and John Merritt for the other two, sound design by Jeff Polunas for The Winter's Tale and Scott O'Brien for Imbroglio.)
If you're a Minnesota theater lover, Great River Shakespeare Festival is a must-see. It's our only destination festival with multiple plays in rep, and the artists and staff involved are top notch, resulting in a well-run festival with really high quality theater. And I don't know another theater where the leadership team introduces every show and mingles with the audience before and after the show. Leaving your home and daily life behind for a few days allows you to immerse yourself in the art, like a mini theater camp. And the setting of Winona, with the Mississippi River and its great bluffs, really couldn't be any prettier.
Visit the GRSF website for tickets and info on the plays and other events, and check out Visit Winona for things to do in the area. If you like to stay at B&Bs like I do, I highly recommend The Carriage House just across the street from the University, but there are also plentiful hotels within a short drive.
|Rob from The Stages of Minnesota, Jill from Cherry and Spoon, Julie from Minnesota Theater Love,
Co-Associate Artistic Director Melissa Maxwell, and Carol from Minnesota Theater Love
(photo credit: @cherryandspoon Instagram)