Tuesday, July 11, 2023

2023 Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona

I just returned from a whirlwind 28 hours in Winona attending the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) for the 5th time. It's become a summer tradition for me and some of my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB), and one that I hope will never end. Seeing multiple plays in rep performed by a company of talented actors from around the country in one weekend, in a location away from your home and daily life, allows for a unique and immersive theater experience, and one that's unique in the state of Minnesota. Winona is such a lovely town with plenty of other activities that we vowed to stay longer next year so we could enjoy the many restaurants and shops (which are often closed on Sunday), outdoor activities, museums, and more. GRSF is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and for more on the history, present, and future of the festival listen to the 4th episode of TCTB's new podcast "Twin Cities Theater Chat," in which we interview Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson and Co-Associate Artistic Director Melissa Maxwell (available here or wherever you listen to podcasts). GRSF runs through the end of July, so you still have time to plan a mini-vacay and enjoy all that the festival, and the city of Winona, has to offer.

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). 

The order in which you see the plays (and I do recommend seeing all three - that's kind of the point of a festival) is up to the schedule, but the order in which we happened to see them seemed the perfect progression. The first show we saw, about 20 minutes after arriving in town after a gorgeous top-down drive along the river, was The Winter's Tale, directed by Doug Scholz-Carlson, who performed in the play in the inaugural season of GRSF. The show began with the seven actors introducing themselves and saying a bit about how long they've been involved in the festival, and who they play in the show (usually two or more characters). It was a great introduction to ease us into the world of Shakespeare and the festival itself. 

Christopher Gerson, Benjamin Boucvalt, and
De'Onna Prince (photo by Sydney Swanson)
In Act I of The Winter's Tale, we meet King Leontes of Sicilia (played by GRSF favorite Benjamin Boucvalt), whose good friend King Polixenes (Christopher Gerson, who has appeared in every GRSF) is visiting from Bohemia. For no apparent reason, Leontes suspects that Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Hermione (the new-to-me Emily Fury Daly, who is a delight in her many roles in the festival). This is where the tragedy comes in, but in Act II we fast-forward 16 years to Bohemia, where some of the characters are enjoying happier lives, including Leontes' exiled daughter Perdita (Alegra Batara, also a multi-role charmer). 13th company member and director of the next show Tarah Flanagan dons many hats and accents as the flimflammer Autolycus, which is where much of the comedy comes in (along with Emily in her second role as a clown, completely opposite from her Act I performance). The end of the play gave me chills as it called on our faith in magic, with reunions and reconnections and happy endings all around.

That evening, after a short rest at the hotel and a group dinner (during which we discussed our podcast - always working!), we saw our second show - As You Like It, directed by Tarah Flanagan and starring the whole company. This show is all comedy, romance, and silliness; the perfect dessert. The prologue for this show again saw introductions, but not of the actors themselves, rather the characters, relationships, and situations, but still in a fun and playful way. (For even more of an intro to the show, check out the "know before you go" presentation by the understudies, following a short scene by another Shakespeare play, outside of the theater about 35 minutes prior to showtime.)

the full company (photo by Dan Norman)
In this "pastoral comedy," the new Duke (Benjamin Boucvalt again) has banished the old Duke, his brother, er... sister (De'Onna Prince in her third fantastic performance, having played a fierce Paulina and fun shepherd in the previous show). The Dukes' daughters Celia (Eliana Rowe) and Rosalind (Ashley Bowen) are fast friends, and when one of them is banished, they both run away into the woods, where Rosalind in disguise is wooed by the fair Orlando (Chauncy Thomas), who is also on the run. There are some shepherds and goatherds and the like, many of whom fall in love, a court jester (the once again hilarious Emily Fury Daly, who again plays opposite Benjamin Boucvalt but in a very different couple), and the wise Jaques (Christopher Gerson again) who delivers the famous speech that begins "all the world's a stage." Weddings and dancing and music (most of it lovely a capella singing by Composer/Music Director Duncan McIntyre) close out this fun romp through the forest.

After the Sunday morning company conversation at Blooming Grounds coffee shop, we saw Imbroglio, written and directed by Melissa Maxwell, with a fantastic five-person cast, to close out our weekend. As you can hear in our podcast, Melissa has been working on this play for many years, with several readings and workshops, and it's receiving a full production for the first time in this festival. It's definitely the darkest, and obviously most modern, of the plays. It deals with gender politics, class differences, alcoholism, and dreams deferred. The setting of Providence, RI where Melissa is originally from, and this very specific accent (kind of Boston, kind of Philly), add specificity and authenticity to the characters and the story. We wished we were able to see this again, it's that kind of play. So if you can work that into your schedule - do so.

Eliana Rowe, William Sturdivant, Ashley Bowen, and
Chauncy Thomas (photo by Dan Norman)
The imbroglio in question, "a misunderstanding, disagreement, etc., of a complicated or bitter nature, as between persons or nations," occurs between two Black couples who are neighbors and best friends. (In a bit of clever and/or fortuitous casting, the couples are played by two couples from the previous show - Ashley Bowen and Chaucy Thomas, and Eliana Rowe and William Sturdivant.) They start out laughing, eating sandwiches, and playing cards together, but things get a little dicey when Lou announces he's buying the garage where he works, and Herman, a machinist at a factory who's having a hard time getting the respect he deserves, becomes resentful. Lou's wife Betty gets a job and tries to convince Herman's wife Viola to join her, but she's mired in strict gender roles and doesn't think her husband would approve. The latter couple is having problems, as Herman's drinking increases along with his feelings of anger, despair, and distrust. Herman's friend Manny (Adeyinko Adebola) is trouble with a capital T, urging Herman on in his neuroses. There's no happy ending for any of our characters here, just a complicated, real, and tragically beautiful story.

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.

Intimacy Director Tonia Sina, Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson, Jill from Cherry and Spoon,
Julie and Carol from Minnesota Theater Love, and Rob from The Stages of Minnesota
(with unofficial therapy dog Daphne, photo credit: @cherryandspoon Instagram)

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)