Wednesday, July 10, 2024

2024 Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona

Last weekend was my favorite Minnesota theater vacay of the year - the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona. I first attended the festival in 2018 with some of my Twin Cities Theater Blogger friends, and have been back every year since (not counting 2020 - the year that doesn't count), with those same friends, or different friends, or sometimes by myself. This is a smallest festival since I've been attending - only two shows with a company of nine actors, compared to twice that size pre-pan, but what's not smaller is the quality of the theater, the thought and care put into it by the entire team, and the community feeling of being at the festival. Two shows is better than none, and it makes it even easier to see everything in a short weekend trip. Or extend the trip by a few days and enjoy the lovely city of Winona, about a two-hour drive from the Twin Cities, with its ample opportunities for hiking, water sports, museums, shopping, restaurants, and other activities. The festival continues through July 28, so make your plans now for a quintessential Minnesota theater vacation!

Often we like to talk about a theme of the chosen plays, but with these two I'm not sure there is one. One of Shakespeare's greatest and most produced tragedies, Hamlet, is paired with the rom com Much Ado About Nothing, although it's not without moments of tragedy. Even though it's possible to see both shows in one day on a Friday or Saturday, we saw Much Ado on a Saturday night, and ended our weekend with the heaviness of Hamlet on Sunday afternoon. Both very satisfying, if different, experiences. Both plays are performed with the same company of nine talented actors (plus a few precocious youths in Much Ado), share the same set with a few tweaks, and were designed by the same creative team (with different directors). So in that way there is a similarity that makes them feel of the same world, but with very different tones.

Tarah Flanagan as Hamlet
(photo by Dan Norman)
, of course, tells the story of the Prince of Denmark, whose father was (allegedly) murdered by his uncle, who then married his mother. The poor tortured youth spends the play trying to suss out the truth about his beloved father's death, and enact justice. Let's just say things don't end well. The unique thing about this Hamlet is that the title character is played by a female actor (which is actually not that rare, see Bernhardt/Hamlet, produced recently by Theatre Pro Rata). And because that actor is longtime GRSF company member Tarah Flanagan, we're in good hands. Tarah has the experience and skills to portray all of the nuances of this character, but also seems youthful in a Peter Pan sort of way. Hamlet is one of the greatest roles in English language theater - why shouldn't a woman have the opportunity to play it?! She's one of the best Hamlets I've seen, saying these words with such emotion that the Shakespearean language is clear and easy to understand, and imbuing the character with a physicality that portrays his inner torment. We willingly follow Hamlet's journey, that fact that we're powerless to stop the trajectory making it only more enjoyably torturous. 

Hamlet is directed by GRSF Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson, who told us that he didn't really make that large of a cut from the notoriously long play, but keeps it moving at a brisk pace that keeps it well under three hours (including intermission), and makes it feel even shorter. The 20+ roles have been assigned to a company of just nine (also including Melissa Maxwell, William Sturdivant, Daniel Ajak, Diana Coates, Emily Fury Daly, Michael Fitzpatrick, Christopher Gerson, and understudy Carl Schack) with quick changes and creative casting to make it work. The stage is bare except for a raised platform and regal columns (shared by both plays), allowing the focus to be on the characters and the story. The sparseness of the set is balanced by the richness of the sound and lighting design, with startling peals of thunder, glowing ghosts in the darkness, and twinkling lights above the stage. Characters are dressed in hyper modern black, gray, and white chic formal wear appropriate to the royal court. (For both plays, scenic design by Leah Ramillano, costume design by John Merritt, lighting design by Avery Reagan, and sound design by Jeff Polunas.)

Beatrice (Melissa Maxwell) and Benedick (Will Sturdivant)
(photo by Dan Norman)
In contrast to the darkness of Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing is all lightness and fun. Well, mostly. For those of you who get your Shakespearean comedies confused, like I do, this is the one with the bickering Benedick and Beatrice, who swear they'll never marry, only to fall in love. While the young and in love couple Cladio and Hero face a seemingly insurmountable obstacle thanks to the prince's bastard brother. Melissa Maxwell and William Sturdivant (fresh from the Guthrie's masterful History Plays) play Beatrice and Benedick, a much more fun and spirited couple than Gertrude and Claudius in the previous play. The two actors' sparkling wit, chemistry, and willingness to throw themselves physically into the roles (the famous hiding and eavesdropping scenes a highlight) are a delight to watch. The whole company (the same as above but with a different understudy - Allesandro Yokoyama) is really playful, with Tarah in a much different role as Dogberry, leader of the watch, which consists of two youngsters holding their own in this company of professionals. The ending was changed a bit to give Hero a bit more agency (instead of silently marrying the man who betrayed her, not cool even if he was under deceit).

Director Gaby Rodriguez set the tale in a neighborhood block party, complete with gingham tableclothed folding table (used as a hilarious prop in multiple ways), plastic cups, and multicolored banners hanging across the stage and into the audience. There are not many lighting or sound effects in this play, but a nice use of live music, with characters dressed in colorful chic (or silly) character-defining modern clothing. Despite some slight problems hearing some of the actors when they turned away (we were seated on one side of the thrust stage), it was a brisk and entertaining spin through this story.

One of the fun things about a festival is the community engagement events surrounding it. These include Saturday night ice cream socials (a good excuse to hang around the theater on a warm summer night and chat about the play), Sunday morning company conversations at (or near) a downtown coffee shop (Q&A with actors and creative team, with a different theme each week - also available to watch on Facebook), and the "Green Shows." These happen outside on the green campus lawn about 45 minutes prior to each show, with members of the acting company (understudies including the two mentioned above, plus Marisa Dean, Serena Philip, and Emma Bucknam) performing short scenes from various Shakespeare plays. Directed by longtime GRSF company member Andrew Carlson, each show introduces the audience to the themes of the play as well as the Shakespearean language we're about to be immersed in. They also pass out handy relationship charts and tell us a bit about the story and what to look out for. It's a fun and accessible way into the plays.

Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing continue in rep through July 28, with evening performances Wednesday through Saturday and matinees Friday through Sunday. It's possible to see both shows in a day trip, but much more fun to stay a night (or three) in charming riverside Winona to take advantage of everything that the festival, the city, and the area have to offer. See the full schedule and purchase tickets on GRSF's website.