2019 Season Reviews

John Lepard triumphs as ‘King Lear’ along with rest of the MSF players

David Kiley for EncoreMichigan

July 16, 2019

JACKSON, Mich.–One thing about being a King. You know the fall is going to come. It’s going to happen sooner, if not later. A few Kings decide they ca';t stomach the suspense, though, and walk themselves to the cliff.

Shakespeare’s King Lear has always been a fascinating story that has beguiled many an actor and director to take it on. It is one of those roles that great actors who still do stage work into their 70s will do if they do Shakespeare. Think Anthony Hopkins, Charles Laughton, Paul Scofield, Lawrence Olivier in 1983, Nigel Hawthorne in 1999. And in a gender reversal, Glenda Jackson this year on Broadway at age 83. It’s a role given to acting royalty.

In the Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s production, which opened this past weekend here, John Lepard–a fixture around Michigan theater, executive director of The Williamston Theatre and a veteran of film and TV–wears the crown. Lepard, I am sure is not in his 70s, but he wears enough age as an actor to carry off a terrific Lear.

Lear is no ordinary King, clinging to power. Indeed, he has a bit of Henry II in him, a bit of George III, but also a bit of George Washington who famously left office after two terms, though he could have stayed in power longer.

Lear tells the tale of a king who bequeaths his power and land to two of his three daughters, after they declare their love for him in an extremely obsequious manner. The third daughter gets nothing, because she won’t flatter him in the same manner. When he feels disrespected by the two daughters who now have his wealth and power, he becomes furious to the point of madness. He eventually, then, becomes tenderly reconciled to his third daughter, Cordelia, just before tragedy strikes her…and then the king himself.

The lead role requires an actor who can play a range–from regality to the confused retired King and then the almost child-like nutty king, and then the utterly broken King. Lepard is an inspired piece of casting as he more than knows how to fill every bucket of Lear’s transformation.

Fortunately, he is also surrounded by a superb cast and ensemble. Alan Ball is Gloucester and takes his punishment on stage with great aplomb, right down to having both eyes gouged out in a fit of very good stagecraft that had the audience squirming. Jacob Mundell as Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund and Ian Geers as his legitimate older brother both animate their characters beautifully. That goes as well for Oswald, steward to Lear’s daughter Goneril, played terrifically by Eric Eilersen. All three actors lift the action around Lear and Gloucester, infuse their parts with a bit of modernity and fabulous energy that speaks to how well they have studied their parts.

The miserable conniving daughters are played by Vanessa Sawson as Goneril, and Claire Jolliffe as Regan. Sawson brings a luminous presence to the stage despite her, well, unhealthy thoughts about Dad. These two are not the ones you leave to cook Thanksgiving dinner with all the family in for the holiday. But wait til the end, and you’ll see for yourself, if you have never seen Lear, how it turns out for them.

David Blixt, a likely future Lear himself, is Earl of Kent who does not get any parts of his face gouged out, but he is a steady balance to Ball’s Gloucester. Martel Manning plays a commanding Albany, while Justin Montgomery and Michael Morrow fill out an overall dynamic cast as France and Cornwall respectively.

Angela Weber Miller’s set provides a very versatile space for Iron Age Britannia, while light design by Kelcie Nutile was handled very well changing times of days and transitioning to the ultimate bloody death scenes. Lots of good, fun sword play and fighting directed by David Blixt.

Really, there is something for everyone, and not a few scenes will remind Godfather fans of the Coppola classic film. That’s how easily Lear travels in modern storytelling.

Lepard’s Lear is a triumph, but so is the entire production. Bravo!

MSF actually improves upon Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’

Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan

July 16, 2019

JACKSON, Mich.–Had Shakespeare had more time after his Stratford retirement to edit his works before he died, they might have come out looking the way Robert Kauzlaric puts them together.

Kauzlaric, who is directing Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, is not shy about editing the Bard’s works to make them even more compelling to a modern audience. He doesn’t simply tighten up a few speeches or cut a scene here and there as most directors do. He finds the storyline and twists the script to tell that story, doing whatever it takes whether it is giving one character’s parts to another or borrowing from lines or scenes from other plays.

Yet, even though he makes bold with the red pen and is free with his changes, the results are always completely Shakespearean. He doesn’t do away with the flavor or the richness of all that makes Shakespeare great. Rather, he brings it into greater focus and you are left with something that almost feels more Shakespeare than Shakespeare.

Thus it is with Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies and one that isn’t often done in part because of its problematic ending. Yet, it is a fun play with many of the elements that will come out later in the more mature Shakespeare works. 

Kauzlaric cast a mere six actors in the show—half of what a typical MSF Shakespeare production uses. Those six actors fly on and off the stage and in and out of elaborate costumes. One can only imagine the  show that is taking place in the wings conducted by Stage Manager Stefanie Din’s magic wand to make some of these changes happen. 

Valentine (Martel Manning) and Proteus (Ian Geers) are the title characters, two best friends who are about to be separated when the play opens as Valentine goes off to seek his fortune and Proteus stays home to win his love. 

From there follows courtships, tricks, betrayals, disguises and one of Shakespeare’s favorite tricks of the day—boy actors performing women who dress up as men. 

Manning and Geers make fantastic youth who get caught up in one passion after another and for whom everything is an extreme. They are boisterous friends, forlorn lovers and energetic performers who are always fun to watch. 

Manning is especially enjoyable in his interactions with his servant, played by Lauren Grace Thompson, who also plays Julia, Proteus’ lover. She’s able to push her somewhat slow master in the right direction in humorous exchanges. Manning is sympathetic from the get-go and is accessibly heroic and charismatic.

Thompson’s Julia captures a lovely range of emotions from a silly maiden who behaves almost peevishly to one deeply in love to one horribly wronged and heart-broken. She expresses complex emotions that she owns even while wishing she could discard them.

Geers manages to create a character who teeters back and forth from protagonist to antagonist, hero to villain. He is at once sympathetic and then falls from grace with the speed of Shakespeare’s later tragic heroes. 

Alan Ball does his typically superior job as he flies in and out of role and costume. He plays Duke of Milan, Proteus’ mother, Launce—the play’s clown and Proteus’ servant, an outlaw and a musician. Each one is completely distinctive and each brings their own brand of comedy to the story.

Claire Joliffe’s primary role is that of Silvia, the object of both gentlemen’s affection as well as that of her father’s favored suitor Thurio (Michael Morrow). However, she also plays Launce’s flea-bitten cur of a dog, Crab, and has to make some of the fastest costume changes and quick exits and entrances. It’s delightful to watch her change from the sophisticated lady to the humble, miscreant hound.

Morrow rounds out the cast by playing four roles of both genders, two different species and different social classes. He is playful and constantly gives his fellow cast members lots to work with to elevate the humor of each scene.

Kauzlaric mixes in a dash of modern words and anachronistic actions that are all clearly intentional, done the way the creators of such shows as “Spring Awakening” and “Hamilton” did with their period pieces. They are choices that make the show sparkle and add a dash of familiarity for the audiences.

Angela Weber Miller designed an elegant set in which large gears turned a triptych of paintings to create different settings and to control the time of day with the turn of a painted sun to a crescent moon. It let things speed through without pauses from scene to scene.

The show lasts only 90 minutes—one of the few times you’ll go to a Shakespeare show that has no intermission nor does it need one. Kauzlaric also tackled the problematic ending of Two Gentlemen of Verona, one that would be hard to accept at any modern time, but especially not now when we are amid the #metoo movement.

However, he did not make an ending up out of whole cloth. Instead, he borrowed from “Love’s Labour Lost” for an ending that was still Shakespearean and feels like a much better fit than the traditional one. It is, in fact, one that the mature William Shakespeare, I think, would approve.

MSF’s ‘Cyrano’ is a loving summer treat

David Kiley for EncoreMichigan

July 23, 2019

JACKSON, Mich.–The story of Cyrano de Bergerac is not just about a man with a seriously big nose in love. In a world of image consciousness, fat shaming and sexual identity self-consciousness, this is a story written in the 1800s and set in 1640 that could be adapted any which way to a modern context. 

But the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, which is performing the play this summer in Jackson and Canton as its non-Bard offering, is keeping with the 17th century time-context of the original and stay true to the text. If there are some new tweaks, they did not stand out in this production.

David Blixt plays the lead role, and it’s one of those roles he seems born to play. Blixt, a fixture in the festival for years, has swagger going on, but he also has layers of acting chops to fully inhabit the heartbreaking emotional incarceration of Cyrano.

He loves, Boy, does he love. And he has an amazing gift of language. He pushes against the trope that women really just want a pretty face and sinewy body even if it means putting up with a cad, a lout or a heart-hollow mogul. Sure, there are some women who opt for those men out of need, shallowness or desperation. But life clearly taught playwright Edmond Rostand that maybe men with physical shortcomings, as defined by society and the media, should not be as bashful or self-conscious–and just let their heart and mind do the talking and wooing, and see what happens.

Vanessa Sawson plays a radiant Roxanne who, in fact, makes it clear that if a man cannot touch her soul with a gift for words, he is not going to touch any other part of her. She warms to Christian (Michael Morrow) , a young soldier, who is simple, and has a decent heart. But he is a bit of a dullard. To bridge the gap, Cyrano uses him as his conduit for his love of Roxanne–feeding words to Christian to speak below her window and writing his love letters to her. Joe Jackson seeming wrote, “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” from the standpoint of Ragueneau (Alan Ball) or perhaps Cyrano himself.

Blixt is wonderful in the title role, but he can’t do it alone, and this year’s ensemble is very strong indeed. Ian Geers (Bellerose and other parts), Eric Eilersen (Valvert and other parts), Robert Kauzlaric (te nasty Comte de Guiche, the married officer who covets Roxanne), Martel Manning (Ligniere and Cordon) and Justin Montgomery (Marquis and other parts) are all solid and handle their Shakespeare and versical dialogue of Cyrano wonderfully. And in this play, and King Lear, there is much sword play and it’s all choreographed delightfully.

It’s worth noting that while Cyrano, directed beautifully by Janice L Blixt, is a swashbuckling love story with a tragic ending (there is no spoiler complaints on 121 year old play) there is a fair amount of laugh lines to soften you up for the ending. Cyrano is very matter-of-fact and self-deprecating about his beak. And Rostand gives Cyrano a lot of witty dialogue that is one of his most important human dimensions–the ability to laugh at himself, even while he is aching inside for the woman who would make him complete.

One wonders along the way of Roxanne is really all that. Beautiful, yes. But methinks that sometimes people who focus on their own physical imperfections over-value the exterior beauty of another. Rostand gives her some likeable redemption in the end, even if it is too late. Audience members will decide if Cyrano shakes off his mortal coil happy or sad.

But see this play! The themes are timeless and Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s director and players have given us a loving summer treat.

2018 Season Reviews

This ‘Measure for Measure’ ripped from the headlines

Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan.com

July 28, 2018

JACKSON,Mich.–What happens when justice isn’t tempered with mercy? When the law is used to bludgeon rather than create a better society? When a leader doesn’t know how to lead?

 

Those are just a few of the questions raised in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, currently being performed by the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. It is a play that feels incredibly current with themes anyone familiar with the #metoo movement will recognize. When a male power figure tells a woman her word will never be believed over his, the audience shares a collective grimace.

 

But Director Janice L. Blixt isn’t just trying to make hay off the day’s headlines. Her Measure for Measure is a thoughtful, intelligent interpretation of one of the Bard’s problem plays. She doesn’t hesitate to make edits not only for ease of production and timing but also for thematic purposes. She guides her actors in digging in to the play’s subtext and giving each of their characters something specific to communicate. There’s a lot to explore and to chew on in this political comedy.

 

It starts with the Duke, Vincentio, played by Ian Geers. He’s suddenly decided to take a break from ruling and leave his power in the hands of Angelo, his second in command, a well-reputed man who has served him well. Angelo, played by Robert McLean, is assisted by Vincentio’s uncle Escalus, played by Zach Fischer. The Duke disguises himself and goes underground to learn what his people think about his ruling.

Angelo immediately begins to enforce laws that had long since been ignored, you know, those pesky rules that no one has bothered to remove from the books. His first victim is Claudio (Laurence Stepney) who has gotten his betrothed pregnant. Since they are willing lovers, the sentence would typically be marriage. Instead, Angelo sentences Claudio to beheading.

 

Claudio’s friends call upon his sister Isabella (Diana Coates) to appeal to Angelo for mercy. As she is a novitiate about to become a nun, her honor is considered beyond reproach.

 

From there the plot, as it always does in Shakespeare’s comedies, thickens and twists and turns with villainy and disguises and mistaken identities. And along the way, he challenges us with themes of hypocrisy, corruption, purity, nobleness, leadership, and honesty.

 

The character work in this show is strongly evident. Every actor makes some sort of physical choice that speaks to the character’s personality and choices and is carried out throughout the show. Each is interesting and worth noting.

 

Geers gives us a gentle Duke, one awkward and uncertain in his ruling. Early in the show he demonstrates his hesitation even in shaking hands, which he does so reluctantly, gingerly. It is only when Vincentio takes on a disguise that he finds himself able to grow, to learn about the people and place he rules. Geers gives him an innocence and gentleness that makes him sympathetic and adds authenticity to the final scene—he’s shown us how the Duke has grown from who he was in the beginning to who he is at the end.

 

There are certain women Shakespeare has created that are just a joy to see on stage—they are powerful, eloquent, strong women who manage to rise above the limitations that society puts on them. Isabella is one such character and Coates does a beautiful job with her. Coates discourses with passion, imbuing Isabella with a certainty of her cause and a confidence in her manner. She gives her the right amount of fear, outrage and honorable mercy. She’s a worthy opponent to Angelo, even though he has all the corporal power and she has none.

 

Speaking of Angelo, Hamlet might have been talking about McLean’s portrayal of Angelo when he said ”one may smile and smile and be a villain.” For his betters, he always has a smile. McLean stiffens his spine for the seemingly upright Angelo, always appearing outwardly perfect until the temptation of passion touches him, and even then, he unbends only when no one else can see. While his lieutenants try to dissuade him from his hard judgments, they are swayed by his arguments, that he acts from honor and care for the state. McLean ensures that Angelo always appears “angel on the outward side,” as the Duke later describes him.

 

It is what makes his seduction of Isabella and his treatment of Claudio so powerfully outrageous. It is why it screams of generations of women who have fallen prey to men too respectable for anyone to believe that they would be guilty of sexual misconduct. When Angelo asks, “Is this her fault or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?” we hear the echoes of every defense lawyer who ever claimed the fault was with how the victim dressed or what she drank or the time of night she walked outside.

 

Together McLean and Coates make this work without ever forcing the script into something Shakespeare didn’t intend for it to say. It is, sadly, as common an issue 400 years ago as it is today.

 

Fischer’s Escalus is highly sympathetic and wise. One wonders why the Duke didn’t leave him in charge as he is consistently fair in his rulings and seems to most represent the Duke and his philosophy. Fischer is fatherly without being paternal, honest without being arrogant, and is constantly focused on everything going on around him.

 

Brandon St. Clair Saunders has some of the starring roles this season, starting with being featured on the program cover and then as Ariel in “The Tempest.” In this play, he is Lucio, “a fantastic,” friend to Claudio and a roustabout. He struts like a peacock and in this often-serious comedy filled with drama, provides some of the most purely funny moments. His interactions with the disguised Duke build and build and make the final scene one of high comedy.

 

Joining Saunders as a clown is Alan Ball who plays the Dogberry-like Elbow, a constable who can’t get any of his words right or manage to make charges stick against any of the people he arrests. Ball does some great schtick with handcuffs, with each scene getting more and more outlandish.

 

Tobin Hissong is the Provost who is constantly present to carry out the Duke and Angelo’s orders. He’s got the simple honesty of Elbow, but is far more literate and competent. Hissong helps give an everyman reaction to the seemingly just orders of Angelo. He also has an everyman’s affront at criminal behavior, especially the serious crimes, as he entertainingly relates with an iteration of “and he’s a murderer!”

The cast is large and every performance is noteworthy, each actor contributing to this complex tale in a way that carries out Blixt’s very clear vision.

 

Especially satisfying is how Blixt handles the ending between Isabella and the Duke, something that is somewhat of a problem in the original story, but she edits ever so slightly to make it true to each of their characters and to modern sensibilities without compromising Shakespeare’s intent in the least.

 

Costume Designer Susan High helps Blixt set the play in Victorian England, a palette of blacks, whites, and greys underlining the rigidity and hypocrisy of how Angelo applies the law. She also provided the bawdies with appropriately layered costumes that they could pull on and off over their shoes while still on stage.

Joe Schermoly built a simple set upon which Jeremy Hopgood could cast his projections that take the audience from place to place in the town and easily from interior to exterior.

 

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival always commits to the highest quality of productions, and “Measure for Measure” stands tall amongst their history of shows. It’s an accessible show that is current in theme, easy to understand, and performed by classical actors at the top of their craft. There are few Shakespeare plays more timely than this one, and it is being performed in both Jackson and Canton, making it easier than ever to put on your playlist.

Aphra Behn’s ‘The Rover’ brings timeless humor to Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Patrice Nolan for EncoreMichigan.com

July 23, 2018

JACKSON, Mich. – The new Michigan Shakespeare Festival season treats area audiences to a rollicking production of The Rover, a Restoration Comedy written by Aphra Behn in 1677 and lovingly adapted and directed by Janice L Blixt.

Even if this were not a delightful production (it is) the play would be worth seeing if only to experience the work of its legendary playwright. Aphra Behn was probably the first English woman to take up writing as a profession. Because of Behn’s own “indecent” reputation (as a woman with the audacity to persevere) her work fell out of circulation for several hundred years. Local theatre patrons may recognize Behn as the subject of Kickshaw Theatre’s production of “Or,” which explored the eventful life of this gifted translator, playwright, poet and spy for Charles II. Kudos to MSF for staging her work and to Blixt for trimming bits here and there, combining a few minor characters, and staging The Rover in a way that allows its timeless humor to shine through.

True to the spirit of Restoration Comedy – which marked the restoration of a king (Charles II) to the throne of England and the lifting of puritanical theatre bans – this play thumbs its nose at the moral restraints enforced during the Protectorate era. Indeed, in The Rover, the antagonists are those who loudly protest their moral outrage at others’ presumed immorality while vying to bed an infamous, high-priced courtesan.

The play is set in Naples and opens as three kinswomen of noble birth and Spanish heritage discuss the thrills associated with the pursuit of love and the restraints that keep them from said enjoyment. Florinda is in love with the English Colonel Belvile, but has been promised by her father to a rich old man she despises. Florinda’s brother, Don Pedro, is equally determined to marry her off to his wealthy young friend Don Antonio. Florinda bewails her fate, but gets little sympathy from her sister Hellena, who is destined to be a nun – also against her own inclination. Their cousin Valeria suggest they sample some fun while they can, and the three girls disguise themselves as gypsies and slip out of the house to enjoy Carnevale.

Enter three English Cavaliers who have come to escape Puritanical England and enjoy the excesses of Carnevale. Frederick and Blunt are intent on finding willing female companions, but their friend Belvile is heartsick over Florinda and eschews all women but her. The men are quickly intercepted by a fourth comrade, the English sea captain Willmore – the rover indicated in the title. Willmore, by his own admittance, is a philandering womanizer, given to drink and mischief making. Cut out to be the villain of more high-minded plays, here Willmore’s disarming good nature, inability to dissemble, and enthusiasm for women’s better qualities (e.g., wit, intelligence, and resourcefulness) make him remarkably attractive.

As the various characters engage in the Carnevale festivities, masks and capes are donned, kisses are exchanged and swords are crossed. The plot is much too complex to summarize here, but in the end some characters are wounded in body, some in pride, and some by Cupid’s arrows. Those who are true to their own nature, in defiance of societal convention, are the ones who prevail.

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival company does consistently stellar work, and The Rover offers ample proof. Even when ribald hilarity is happening front and center, other characters offer bits of business that are sure to draw a chuckle from anyone in the audience glancing their way. Robert McLean exudes roguish charm as Captain Willmore, who catches and is caught by would-be nun Hellena, played with moxie by Destiny Dunn. The steadfast Belvile is played by the elegant Laurence Stepney, who is constantly thwarted in his attempts to woo the all-to-willing Florinda, played by Claire Jolliffe with perfect comedic coquetry. Alan Ball makes a choice appearance as the “woman of quality” who makes and easy prey of Tobin Hissong’s character, Blunt, who is quickly relieved of his purse, his jewelry and his clothing. The incomparable Janet Haley appears as the sultry-voiced, world-wise courtesan Angelica Bianca. Diana Coates is Valeria, Cody Robison is Don Antonio, Zach Fischer is Don Pedro, Ian Geers is Frederick, Jason Briggs is Stephano, and Kevin Tre’Von Patterson is the Officer.

Almost every male actor in The Rover is required to engage in extended swordplay, which they execute with both vicious energy and a touch of humor thanks to David Blixt, Festival Artistic Associate and Fight Director for this production.

Designs for the show lean into Janice L Blixt’s vision for the sense of freedom that comes from shedding layers of artifice to get closer to what’s real. Costume design by Darice Damata-Geiger acknowledges the excesses of late 17th Century fashion without literally reproducing those weighty costumes and wigs. The men are dressed in an inventive mash up of old and new – with belted frock coats constructed with the sleeves detached and laced into place, oddly suggestive of the outlandish doublets favored in that period. The women’s dresses are lovely, with tight bodices, plenty of décolletage, and full skirts. All of the masks, capes and shawls donned and swapped by the various characters help invoke the bizarre Carnevale mood. Blixt’s design team also includes spare but effective modular scenery by Joe Schermoly, with sound and musical arrangements by Kate Hopgood.

Everything about this production is calculated to charm, entertain and engage contemporary audiences in the timeless fun of human beings caught in affairs of the heart. The play makes no attempt to excuse men behaving badly, although Blixt makes the wise artistic choice to downplay an attempted rape scene found in the original text. Instead, we witness Aphra Behn’s distain for double-standards, her celebration of life and love, and her contribution to a body of work in which women can be their own heroes.

Michigan Shakespeare Festival storms July with most excellent ‘Tempest’

Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan.com

July 16, 2018

JACKSON, Mich.–One of Shakespeare’s more popular plays, The Tempest,charms audiences with its magic, its island setting, its themes of revenge and redemption and the numerous, complex relationships found within it. It’s a play rich in potential and one that brings out creative interpretations in the companies that perform it.

So it is with the Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s production of this 400+ year old romance, directed by Robert Kauzlaric, a Festival regular who has proven his creative chops with original interpretations of some of the Bard’s most challenging works.

For those familiar with Kauzlaric’s work, there is much that will seem familiar. He plays up the magical elements of the world, creating contrasts between the earthy baseness of Caliban and the other-worldly power of Ariel. He communicates a cohesive vision with his tech crew so that sets, music, lights and costumes all create this magical world where Prospera commands the elements and they do her bidding.

Kauzlaric borrows from one of Shakespeare’s tragedies to open the play, giving Prospera (the role feminized for this production), played by Festival favorite Janet Haley, the famous King Lear speech where he calls upon the storms to blow and rage and crack their cheeks.

Central to this story is Prospera, and Haley has all the gravitas, stage presence and magic that this role demands. She is not the ancient that Prospero is sometimes portrayed as. Rather, she is a powerful woman in her prime who has been betrayed, but who has also been the contributor to her own problems. She is at once fearsome and sympathetic. She has a voice that echoes through the space, underlining her isolation. She declaims, she lectures, she incants. Only rarely is Prospera able to find those quiet, human moments. But when she does, Haley infuses her with a touching tenderness.

There are many ways to portray the air spirit, Ariel, and Brendan St. Clair Saunders creates an alien creature who is powerful in his masculinity. Costume designer Aly Renee Amidei leaves most of his muscular chest bare, arming him with a large, metal pauldron on his left shoulder and a striking head piece and mask.

Saunders matches Haley in strength and the two are clearly a force that cannot be overcome—which is why all falls out on the island according to Prospera’s plans. Like his mistress, Ariel is isolated from others. When given his freedom, he is off without a single glance back or any sort of goodbye to the mistress he has served. The aspects of air that he embodies are those of the raging winds and the powerful gales, not that of the gentle breeze.

Destiny Dunn’s Miranda captures well the role of ingénue, a creature of beauty who dazzles the eyes of those who see her. It’s easy to see why Kevin Tre’Von Patterson’s Ferdinand falls so quickly and hard for her—they fall in love and are betrothed in a fourth of the time it took those other speedy lovers, Romeo and Juliet to do the same.

Dunn moves with gracefulness and her actions are filled with sincerity and innocent passion.

Patterson borders on being too goofy sometimes, which feels out of place with Dunn, Haley and Saunders. It is a valid interpretation of the character, just not one that meshes especially well with the others.

Alan Ball, another Festival favorite, takes on the role of Caliban, bringing to it a base physicality that makes him monster to Ariel’s spirit. He moves with a crookedness that he carries on consistently throughout the show, even as he engages in tumbles and pratfalls and fisticuffs. His energetic portrayal is an impressive physical accomplishment.

His scenes with the drunken butler, Stephano, played by Robert McLean, and the king’s jester, Trinculo, played by Cody Robison are pure fun, especially when Robison starts imitating an inchworm as he moves around the stage. All three fully commit to the physical comedy of their roles and keep their scenes speeding along as they climb stairs, fall down rocks and engage in drunken antics as they plot to kill Prospera and take over rule of the isle.

The remaining group of six is led by Jason Briggs’ Alonso, King of Naples, and his entourage. Briggs is solemn in mourning the loss of his son and little can shake him from it, not even the best efforts of his ever-optimistic courtier, Gonzalo, played by Tobin Hissong.

Meanwhile, the pair of Antonio, played by Zach Fischer, and Sebastian, played by Laurence Stepney, laugh and mock at everything the king and his courtier do and say. They are the play’s villains—Antonio for usurping Prospera and sending her and Miranda out on a leaky boat to their presumed deaths, Sebastian for plotting to kill his brother the king and take his place. Both are excellent at sneering and japing.

One of the delightful edits that Kaulzaric does is in the scene where Prospera summons spirits to perform for the young lovers. In it, Ceres questions Ferdinand about whether he is truly a lover for he performs no tasks that a lover should perform and looks not like a lover should look. Ferdinand answers her in a way that earns the blessing of the spirit goddesses and his future mother-in-law.

There is much which makes this production magical, even beyond the skillful portrayals of characters that each actor gives. It is the coming together of all the creative elements to tell Shakespeare’s story with Kaulzaric’s singular vision.

Kate Hopgood’s music underwrites every moment with muted emotion. It is a constant, but quiet soundtrack that rings true to Caliban’s assessment that, “The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” So expertly woven into the tapestry of the play is the music that it is almost easy to not notice it is there, to let its magic seep into one’s subconscious and work its sorcery. Other times, the original composition takes forefront, as spirits sing to wondrous mortals, captivating them as well as the audience.

Amidei’s costumes are consistently superior. She gives Prospera a layered outfit with a “magic garment” that has a presence both when it is worn and when it is lying on the stage. The spirits are beautifully bedecked all in the theme set by Ariel.

Joe Schermoly is the Festival scenic designer, and the sets featured a stark simplicity that was a somber backdrop to the magic that took place on stage. Yet, the simplicity hides pieces that help to tell the story, whether a glowing fire or a quickly drawn line of clothes between standing rocks.

The Tempest opened the 2018 season for the Michigan Shakespeare Festival with plenty of wonder and beauty. With its lovers, its fools, its kings, its killers, its spirits, and above all, the magician who dictates each of their stories—it is a metaphor for everything the Festival does so well year in and year out. Take the time to catch this production before it vanishes like Prospera’s art in the final scene.

2017 Season Reviews

 

MSF’s ‘Julius Caesar’ a taut blend of classic and modern Shakespeare

by David Kiley for encoremichigan.com

July 16, 2017

JACKSON, Mich.–It’s hard to imagine a Shakespeare play more timely than Julius Caesar; a play in which the central character, Brutus, struggles with his inner conflicts of honor, patriotism, ambition and friendship. It’s not like those are themes we aren’t confronted with daily by what pathetically passes for political leadership today.

No doubt that is why director Janice Blixt has the fine cast of this production toggle between togas and modern garb–to remind us that though the play was written in 1599, it could have been written last week.

Caesar (Lee Palmer) is fresh off victory in defeating Pompey’s sons at the Battle of Munda, and the people of Rome are cheering him on. Senator Caius Cassius (Brandon St. Clair Saunders), an extremist, believes that Caesar represents a dangerous grab for power and puts the idea in the head of Senator Marcus Brutus (Robert Kauzlaric) that Caesar should be bumped off to prevent him from exercising power before the fact. In point of fact, Caesar has been offered the crown of Rome three times prior to his victory, and has refused it three times. So much for dangerous power grabs in reality. Cassius reminds us so much of some current members of the U.S. Senate, it is a laudable exercise of restraint that Blixt didn’t rename the characters as part of her interpretation of the play.

Several members of the cast carry smartphones. That’s right. Even in togas, they are thumbing away texts, and answering the odd call­–another nod to the fact that the treachery Shakespeare wrote into the story was very much au currant for 1599, and 15 minutes ago and next week.

The scene in which Caesar is murdered is choreographed beautifully. There is much blood, which proved shocking to the audience. But it was so slickly executed, that it brought fabulous life to this relic of a play that seems ripped from today’s headlines. Marc Antony’s (David Blixt) famous speech, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” is wonderfully delivered by Blixt, hitting perfectly the wink-wink quality of the speech in the public square as he straddles loyalty between Caesar and Brutus, while actually body slamming the latter under the wheels of the nearest chariot.

The nod to modernity and timeliness continues in the second act when, after the murder, and Brutus and Cassius are preparing for and then waging war with their followers against Marc Antony and Octavius and their followers. The Senators are now donning modern fatigues and black berets. The knives they used as side-arms in ancient Rome have given way to 9 mm Glocks, and soldiers are firing automatic rifles. The guns fire in short fire-fight sequences, so the audience needs to be prepared for loud, real-sounding gunfire.

Such moves into thoroughly modern actions, costuming, etc. is fraught with many members of the Shakespeare going public. There are many who would prefer to keep the Senators in togas for the whole play. But, then again, the AK-47s could work to lure new and younger audiences. In any case, there is nothing that feels forced here, which is testament to Blixt’s direction.

Overall casting, as is usually the case with the Michigan Shakespeare Festival , is wonderful. Besides the principal players already mentioned, Shawn Pfautsch as Senator Caska, Janet Haley as Metella, also a Senator, Vanessa Sawson as Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia, and Alan Ball who is Cynna and comes back as a plebian and soldier stand out for their performances. As a man who gets beat up by thugs after the murder, Ball is a poignant and the fight sequence is chilling, reminding more than one audience member, I’m sure, of Detroit 1967.

Set design, as ever with MSF, is simple but effective, with Roman columns draped in red bunting.

The story and production is chilling and exciting, and if you can’t see the relevance and connection to our state of the world today, then you just aren’t trying. And as for the patrons who left at intermission complaining it wasn’t as light and bouncy as the company’s Taming of the Shrew, playing concurrently in the MSF, you missed a great play.

 

MSF’s ‘The Taming of The Shrew’ is rollicking in Jackson

by Bridgette Redman for encoremichigan.com

July 11, 2017

 

JACKSON, Mich.–Why would an accomplished, strong feminist play the part of a strong woman who yields up her temperament to a man agreeing that even the sun and the moon rise only at his word and not at the dictates of science?

In the case of Janice L Blixt, artistic director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, it is the chance to revive the role she played 20 years ago with her now-husband, David Blixt, under the direction of John Neville Andrews. It is also the chance to portray her story with some new perspectives. Does Kate, in The Taming of the Shrew truly get tamed? Or is she taming Petruchio? Is she doing it for money? Is she doing it to revenge herself on those who mistreated her with their seeming submission and docile behavior?

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival officially opened its 2017 season with this controversial work of the Bard’s. They play it straight in period, removing only the play within a play aspect and adding an enthusiastic quartet of musicians.

The two Blixts play Kate and Petruchio while perennial Festival favorite Janet Haley is the younger sister Bianca. The two sisters fight with equal fury until their father, Baptista Minola, played by Tobin Hissong, shows up on the scene. Then Bianca bursts into crocodile tears, making her sister look the Shrew and herself the victim, even though she continues to torment her sister when the father looks away.

From there the play launches into the familiar tale of suitors who desire and scheme for Bianca even though Baptista has said he will not marry his younger daughter until his elder daughter, Kate, is married. Petruchio claims he is the man when he learns she comes with a large dowry.

Money is a continual theme in this show—with Baptista saying he will give his younger daughter to the man with the most money. Even the troublesome ending scene, in which Kate is called upon to scold the other women for not being soft, pliant women submissive to their husband’s whims, is saturated with economics, for it wins her husband a bet and a second dowry, and Director Neville-Andrews makes the eventual possession of this money a key part of the scene.

The two Blixts have all the chemistry you would expect from a couple married off stage as well as on and who have played these roles before. They make clear there is a spark between them, even when they are still fighting and butting heads. Nor do they hide their passions when the two manage to find those. They both have great energy and make the case that the two of them will have a long and loving marriage.

Bianca is a different role for Haley, who more often plays the strong, powerful women and not the ingenues. She makes it work by giving Bianca a spine that is often lacking in productions of this show. Her submissiveness is only a show and she is as much in charge as her sister is and capable of deep plots.

As always, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival has a cast that is strong from top to bottom. Alan Ball gives Gremio humor as the suitor who loses all and gains nothing. Ian Geers as Lucentio and Brandon St. Clair Saunders as his servant Tranio have fun exchanges as they plot to gain the hand of Bianca for the master. Lucentio’s other servant Biondello is played by Eric Eilersen and he has some speed speeches that leaves his stage-mates gasping for air.

Suzanne Young designed gorgeous period costumes for this play, ones that gave each character a station and underlined his or her personality. She rose to the challenge of creating costumes that are very specifically described in the script, especially Petruchio’s wedding outfit and the dress he has made for his wife. About the only complaint is that the dress brought in for Kate was not nearly as gorgeous as the one she was wearing, making her wonder over its beauty slightly less effective.

Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design was kept simple and sparse—hanging buildings that were used for the various homes, allowing running scene changes. It will also be a set that will easily be packed up and taken to the Shake Fest’s second location in Canton for the last three weeks of its run.

“The Taming of the Shrew” will always be a challenging play to mount in today’s world. We look at women and their roles differently and many of the speeches are cringe-worthy. There is also the issue of Hortensio who sometimes seems to be two different characters merged into one, for he witnessed the “taming” of Kate and yet still took the bet against it. Likewise, he and Tranio-as-Lucentio swore off Bianca, but he seems to be unsurprised when he announces their upcoming marriage to Petruchio.

That said, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival has tackled these challenges head-on and put together a high-quality show that is filled with rollicking good humor.

2016 Season Reviews

 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 'Richard II'

by Jenn McKee for Pulp

August 2, 2016

 

Sometimes, when you see a Shakespeare play that’s rarely produced, you walk out thinking, “I’m pretty sure I know why.” But then, at other times, like an unexpected gift, you walk out of a production thinking, “Where have you been all my life?” The latter describes my experience with Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s three-hour production of Richard IIRichard II, now playing at Canton’s Village Theater. 

The history play focuses on King Richard (Robert Kauzlaric), who’d been crowned at age 9, after his grandfather Edward III ruled England for 50 years, and his father, the natural heir, died. 

Richard II takes place when Richard has reached adulthood, after wrangling with his father’s brothers for years to retain power. When one of Richard’s cousins, Henry Bolingbroke (Robert McLean), gets into a feud with a noble named Thomas Mowbray (Matt Daniels), who’s accused of being involved in the murder of one of Richard’s uncles, Richard banishes them both, thereby angering Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Alan Ball). The rift sets events in motion, as Gaunt confronts Richard and later dies; Richard leaves England to reclaim power in Ireland; and Bolingbroke returns to England to not just claim his father’s title and land, but also Richard’s crown.

Many factors play into our response to a show, of course: design elements, the language, performers, pacing, the director’s choices, prominent themes, and even what personal experiences we’re bringing with us into the theater. 

For me, this seldom-produced history play opened up near its end, when Richard has been usurped and imprisoned and says: “Alack the heavy day/ That I have worn so many winters out/ And know not now what name to call myself./ … But whate’er I be/ Nor I nor any man that but man is/ With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased/ with being nothing.” In this monologue, Shakespeare reflects not only on the experience of a person’s previously firm sense of identity in freefall, but also our shifting sense of our place in the world as we age – which is to say, the inevitable realization that each of us might not, after all, be super-special snowflakes.

So there’s already some grade A meat to chew on in Richard II, but director Janice L. Blixt’s vision for the show also injects some fun touches. Re-imagined as a contemporary power struggle, MSF’s Richard II features actors in suits and ties and sweater vests (designed by costumer Suzanne Young) instead of the more traditional doublet/hose combo. With this in mind, Richard’s sycophantic, hipster friends, when not laughing at others or rolling their eyes, play a subtle drinking game early in the show, stealing nips from their pocketed flasks each time someone says the king’s name. This led me to viewing the trio of Bushy, Bagot, and Green (Eric Eilersen, Ian Geers, Michael Phillip Thomas) as “the bro courtiers.”

But the center would not hold if not for the truly outstanding work of Kauzlaric, who makes Richard someone we feel probably should be knocked down a peg or two, but perhaps not knocked off the peg board altogether. For Richard is smug and self-assured as king, not to mention compassion-challenged (upon learning of his uncle’s death, he flippantly says, “So much for that”); but these flaws somehow make Richard’s imminent fall all the more searing. When Kauzlaric grips tightly onto the crown, just as Richard’s scheduled to hand it over to Bolingbroke, he delivers a blistering speech, disillusioned by how quickly and easily his life has been dismantled; and in the show’s powerful penultimate scene, when he’s been abandoned by all and left alone in his cell, Kauzlaric presents us with a man earnestly struggling to process grief.

Jeromy Hopgood designed the show’s set, which consists of a seemingly collapsed, slanted gateway (actors often duck while making entrances through it), and a backdrop of church windows hanging at different levels. Visually, the stage picture suggests a wobbly, failing infrastructure, which dovetails well with a play about a young ruler who enjoys the confidence of neither his family nor his subjects. Things really are falling apart.

David Blixt expertly choreographs the production’s sword-fights (and assorted violent acts); David Allen Stoughton designed the lighting, which creates a world outside the brightly lit king’s court that feels ominous and isolating – an effect achieved in concert with Kate Hopgood’s sound design and music composition. And Betty Thomas designed the show’s props.

Of course, Shakespeare’s lesser known history plays often frustrate contemporary audiences; it can feel as though you’re jumping into the middle of an epic novel, and try as you might, there are just too many people, and too much you’ve missed, to make sense of the whole. 

But you can trust that you’re in good hands with director Janice L. Blixt, who has, to name one example, added a brief prologue to Richard II – from an entirely different play – to dramatize the murder that’s at the heart of Bolingbroke and Mowbry’s argument in the true opening scene. (This also, conveniently, sets us up for the shady betrayals and violence to come.) Blixt’s commitment to finding creative ways to fill the gaps in our knowledge on stage, so that we’re better able to plug in and focus on the story being told, demonstrates MSF’s mission writ large: to encourage modern audiences to re-connect with Shakespeare’s work in new, invigorating ways. 

Held to this standard, Richard II passes with flying colors.

 

Shakespeare fest stages a regal 'Richard II'

by John Monaghan for The Detroit Free Press

 

4 Stars out of 4 Stars

July 21, 2016

 

Shakespeare’s plays are full of flawed monarchs, but few sin and suffer as majestically as Richard II, the title character of the 1595 play. The superb production that's part of this year's Michigan Shakespeare Festival is a masterwork of physical staging and nuanced acting, and it also may be the only chance you'll ever have to see this rarely performed play.

Richard II is not to be confused with the better-known Richard III, the Machiavellian hunchback also immortalized by the Bard. This Richard, portrayed by Robert Kauzlaric, is a slickly appointed, deliriously self-centered king who begins the play by swiftly settling a dispute between two of his subjects. His version of justice is to banish them both from England, though he shows some last-minute leniency by shortening the sentence of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Robert McLean) to only six years.

Bolingbroke reluctantly leaves only to hear that Richard has seized Bolingbroke's family fortune, using it to fund a foolhardy war between England and Ireland. While Richard mounts his offensive, Bolingbroke arrives with an invading army to reclaim his wealth and mount the throne.

Compared with other Shakespeare plays, “Richard II” is pretty straightforward stuff. There are few extraneous characters and no complicated subplots. At the heart of the play is a monarch surrounded by flatterers who show their true colors with the arrival of Bolingbroke, who (spoiler alert) will succeed in his quest and be crowned Henry IV.

“Richard II” is officially a history play, paving the way for Shakespeare’s subsequent “Henry” plays. It is also considered a tragedy, a warning to anyone in a position of power about the price that comes with surrounding yourself with flatterers and fair-weather friends.

One of my favorite moments in the play finds three  minions slowly turning their heads in a different direction as the political winds change direction. Another is the hilariously over-the-top scene in which Bolingbroke meets his match in a determined mother, his Aunt Isabella (Janet Haley), who uses every weapon in her persuasive arsenal to beg leniency for her openly traitorous son.

Then there is the scene with the gardeners (Alan Ball and Eric Eilersen), one of those seemingly throwaway Shakespeare moments  that ultimately speak volumes about a play's themes. The scene is at once funny, poignant and heartbreaking as the men’s discussion of how weeds invade a garden leads to the realization by Richard’s queen (Anu Bhatt) that her husband has been deposed.

Director Janice L. Blixt approaches the play with a sure hand, using Suzanne Young’s period-unspecific costumes (business professional for the women, blue-blazer preppy for the men) to echo the universality of its themes. Jeromy Hopgood's main set piece, a pi-shaped arch on its side, suggests the ways the kingdom is off-kilter.

The most important element of this play, of course, is the quality of its Richard. Here Kauzlaric conveys not only the king's extreme vanity but also his insecurity. We hate him at one moment, but then feel his pain at the next as he literally hands over his crown while surrounded by those who previously had pledged to him their undying allegiance.

We a feel a similar ambivalence regarding Robert McLean's Bolingbroke, sharing his outrage one minute and cursing his chilliness the next. Politics, according to “Richard II," is ultimately arbitrary, fickle and flawed.

 

"The Killer Angels" takes us back to Gettysburg

by Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan

July 18, 2016

 

JACKSON, Mich.–The Michigan Shakespeare Festival made a brave choice this year in its selection of Karen Tarjan’s The Killer Angels, based on the Civil War novel by Michael Shaara.

Not only does it add a second history to their repertoire this year, but it marks the first time they’ve done a work by a living playwright—or a female playwright.

The Killer Angels is very Shakespearean in scope. It has echoes of his histories with the emphasis on the generals who choreographed the battles and the motivations that drove them. It is peopled with a vast cast of characters, calling upon actors to frequently double and the audience to keep a scorecard of who is who. It also covers a vast ground, switching quickly between 24 scenes. It is a history, but it also has shades of tragedy as we see great men brought down by their flaws and the awful consequences that people suffer from their decisions.

Directed by Janice L. Blixt, The Killer Angels tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, mostly through the eyes of the generals, but also occasionally showing the perspective of the common soldier. In a nod to Greek tragedies, the play has its own chorus, the “troubadour” played by Ian Geers.

Geers launches the play with a haunting version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” backed by drum and fife. He’s eventually joined by the whole company, filling the stage in their white shirts, singing mostly a capella in a haunting manner that accurately sets the tone for the deadly battle to come.

Geers narrates between scenes, letting the audience in on the passage of time and sometimes the movement of place and setting. He sings and plays the guitar and is part of what makes this show so theatrical in nature. He brings the audience along with the play and does so with an energy and pacing that matches the rest of the production.

The entire ensemble moves seamlessly through this production, constantly changing costumes and taking on new roles. They sang, they marched, they fought and they died. Much of Blixt’s staging hearkened back to the set pieces of a Shakespeare show, with people moving deliberately across the stage and filling it to create emotional effect.

Speaking of brave choices, in this play about a battle fought over slavery and state’s rights, Blixt chose to go with color-blind casting. It was at first disconcerting to see a black Confederate officer, but so strong were the performances that it worked and it was easy to quickly see beyond color.

Tobin Hissong, in addition to being part of the ensemble, played the roles of the two opposing generals—Gen. Lee and Gen. Meade, each commanding the entire forces of their side. His performance as Lee was most memorable, in part because Tarjan gives him the meatiest story to work with. Hissong portrayed a sick man who was principled and devoted to Virginia, but also beset with bad intelligence, the failure of underlings and the challenge of battle tactics that didn’t achieve their goals.

Hissong created a Lee who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. He was sympathetic and likeable, but deeply flawed in his eagerness to bring the war to a close and achieve victory for the South even if it meant abandoning the good advice of such generals as Longstreet.

Alan Ball had to make some of the quickest changes, sometimes from one person to the next on a single cot, changing just by rolling over and assuming a different body posture. His characters were all distinct and his storytelling outstanding.

Brandon A. Wright put in an emotional performance as Brig. Gen. Armistead, a man called upon to lead the fated Pickett’s charge. He effectively showed the fear of a doomed soldier, one who would obey the orders he knew would mean massacre for his men. He put a very human face on the tactics of war and the losses that the other generals chose to make as a matter of course.

Robert McLean showed the frustrations of Lt. Gen. Longstreet, a man who had hoped Gen. Lee would take a more defensive approach to warfare—choosing the best ground on which to fight and making the enemy come to them. He remained loyal and obedient as a good soldier, but showed the conflict endured when forced to do something against one’s better judgment. McLean did a good job of humanizing not just Longstreet, but the act of warfare itself and the difficult decisions that come along with it.

On the Union side, some of the most interesting exchanges came between Dwight Tolar’s Col. Chamberlain and his brother, Lt. Tom Chamberlain, played by Eric Eilerson. Chamberlain led the famed bayonet charge down the hill when defending against a Confederate attempt to take the far left flank of the Union forces. He also converted mutineering soldiers into his regiment, swelling his numbers, consolidating his forces, and making their success at Gettysburg a possibility.

Eilerson and Tolar had great chemistry, and their relationship made the bayonet charge even more dramatic. Tolar was professorial–his Chamberlain listening carefully to his soldiers and addressing their grievances with faith that they would reciprocate under fire. He was thoughtful and displayed a desperation in doing what had to be done, a choice far more effective than displaying him as a macho, hero-hungering man.

Thorough and thoughtful research was displayed by Costume Designer Patty Branam who created multiple costumes for each character, each reflecting a historical accuracy without sacrificing storytelling. Each actor has a base white shirt and pants with suspenders for “chorus” numbers and when moving set pieces or singing. They then put on Union or Confederate jackets in which the number of buttons often communicated rank.

Kate Hopgood is the music director for the role, stepping away from her usual job of composing original music for Shakespearean plays to one of arranging traditional Civil War songs and directing the actors to perform them throughout the show. There was a raw passion to the music that helped to tell the story and establish mood and motivation.

Blixt made the most of the theatricality of this play. Her director notes refer to the choices that “create an epic for live theatre, not film or tv.” This is especially true for the dramatic Pickett’s Charge and the choice to leave the stage littered with its after-effects until the end of the play. She blends music, actor doubling and staging to create an intimate and powerful experience.

The Killer Angels is more the story of a battle than of any one individual, but it never lets the audience forget that battles are directed and fought by people and the consequences of each choice–each argument and reaction are visited upon all who participate. For a country that has been long at war, it is a powerful reminder that tactics and strategies tell only part of the story of a battle, and that motives for going to war can spring from powerful convictions on both sides.

 

"MICHIGAN SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL'S THE KILLER ANGELS"

by Jenn McKee for Pulp

August 2, 2016

 

CANTON, Mich.– One thing you’ll inevitably think about while watching the Michigan stage premiere production of Karen Tarjan’s The Killer Angels – presented by Michigan Shakespeare Festival, and inspired by the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel of the same name by Michael Shaara – is how 19th century American warfare and military strategy look nothing like our contemporary conflicts; yet even so, brutality, death, and nightmarish confusion on the battlefield remain constants.

Focused on the three-day Battle of Gettysburg – cited by many as a key turning point for the victorious (uh, spoiler alert?) Union Army – Killer Angels introduces us to military leaders as well as infantrymen on both sides of the war.

How? By double- and triple-casting the production’s 12 actors. And while this casting instruction/suggestion is wholly practical, it nonetheless makes following the play’s already-complicated narrative that much harder. Indeed, if your knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg is minimal - ahem - you’ll likely be struggling to keep the characters (and other details) straight.

But there’s also a larger storytelling paradox at work: a military battle must, by definition, involve lots of people; and yet, to establish an emotional connection to the story, the audience must have sustained, intimate access to a smaller group of characters. (This is how we follow Shakespeare’s history plays, which tend to focus less on a single battle and more on those vying for power.) Because so many leaders and soldiers played a key role – some for better, some for worse – in the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels shifts focus often, providing only cursory glimpses of most characters.

Yes, some conversations among the men are highly personal and touching; but the moments are fleeting, making the show feel more like a well-crafted, visually sumptuous 3D history lesson – with occasional musical interludes.

Indeed, the cast’s spare, haunting, men's chorus harmonies on songs like the show’s opener, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – marvelously led by Killer Angels’ Troubadour Ian Geers – were among my favorite moments of the show. Music director Kate Hopgood, who researched and arranged the show’s music, in addition to being the show's sound designer, affectingly gives the show some soulful scaffolding (and thus gives patrons a few goosebumps).

Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design is simple and theatrical, so that despite the play’s many locales, the only constants are a wood platform at stage right that stands in for General Lee’s (Tobin Hissong) headquarters, and a draped sheet of white fabric for projections (designed by Christine Franzen) that hangs upstage left. To establish other settings, crates get moved and stacked, so soldiers may appear to be sitting in a tree, or taking cover behind the terrain’s natural features.

Costume designer Patty Branam expertly dresses the actors in historically accurate uniforms, using a pants-and-white-shirt base that allows for several quick costume changes; and the attention paid to details like the worn, weathered look of Lee’s hat, and the way the number of buttons on a uniform indicates one's military rank, really seals the deal. Betty Thomas designed the show’s era-appropriate props, and David Allen Stoughton’s lighting design looks gauzy and occasionally spooky under cover of fog, giving Killer Angels the feel of a lived ghost story.

David Blixt does fantastic work choreographing the show’s battles, but the most arresting moment comes at the show’s climax, when an elegant and devastating bit of stagecraft conveys how Lee’s advancing Confederate troops are gutted in the final showdown.

Scenes like this, as well as the more personal, philosophical conversations that happen between men at Gettysburg, get to the heart of The Killer Angels, and director Janice L. Blixt seizes on the show’s best moments with a sure hand. And although the ensemble was strong generally, some standouts included Geers, who guides the audience through the complex story while slipping into multiple roles; Dwight Tolar as Union Col. Chamberlain, a thoughtful, dignified former schoolteacher-turned-soldier who has to make terrifying choices on the battlefield (like charging when his men run out of ammunition); Robert McLean as frustrated Confederate Lt. General Longstreet, who carries out Lee’s orders even when he knows the mission is doomed; and Hissong, who makes Lee a well-intentioned leader who’s so set on ending the war that his judgment about how to best achieve that is compromised.

Civil War buffs will likely swoon at The Killer Angels, as will fans of Shaara’s book (or the film adaptation, Gettysburg); and MSF’s overall execution is impressive and solid. But history dilettantes looking to get lost in a gripping story may instead just feel generally lost.

 

"Richard II" gets rare treatment from Michigan Shakespeare Festival

by Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan

 

 

JACKSON, Mich.– Often, plays presented in the summer are light fares meant for tourists, day trippers and families. Summer stock theaters are known to focus on musicals, comedies and farces.

Not so the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, which is pairing its leading comedy As You Like It with the intellectual and heavily political Richard II.

This is a play for die-hard Shakespeare fans, historians and political scientists. It’s a little-done history that is the prequel to the two Henry IV plays that the Michigan Shakespeare Festival combined and presented last year. It opens and closes with murder and in between are two and a half hours of intense politics, speeches and war-making.

In this history, the young Richard II is beset my nobles and relatives who would help influence his reign, either protecting him from treasons or encouraging him in his warlike ways. There are early political accusations that lead to duel and then showcase Richard’s methods of governing. He proceeds to make rash political decisions that lead to an uprising against him by the Lord whom he exiled before seizing his lands and goods.

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival helpfully provides a family tree and a synopsis to give the audience some of the information that the original Elizabethan audiences would have had as common knowledge. It helps to sort out who all the uncles are and their relation to the young king.

Robert Kauzlaric, one of the Festival’s artistic associates and a frequent director—including of this year’s As You Like It, plays the title role in a rare appearance on the Festival stage. He puts in a multi-layered performance of this talkative king who first ascended to the throne when he was 9 and still bears all the impetuousness of youth. Kauzlaric’s young king is never regal, but is assured in his own power and his expectation that he will be obeyed, even when his commands are thwarted. He claims a divine right to the throne and trusts in that providence to protect him even against his bad decisions.

There is an arc for this spoiled king, and Kauzlaric makes the journey with deliberation, showing a range of great emotion starting with bemusement and traveling through arrogance, excitement, celebration, fear, anger, despair, love, loss and even contentment. He handles well the multiple monologues that Shakespeare thrusts upon this character. Rarely does Richard engage in extended back and forth with others on stage, most of his action consists of long speeches with the occasional bout of intense listening to the monologues of others. In both roles, Kauzlaric creates a Richard who is interesting and who commands attention.

Alan Ball, a Festival artistic associate, and Tobin Hissong, new to the Festival this year, play the three uncles to the young king. They are the older men whose wisdom is neglected and whose position in court is precarious as the young king would sooner listen to young ruffians such as Bush (Eric Eilerson), Bagot (Ian Geers) and Green (Michael Phillip Thomas) who are his drinking buddies and encourage him in his reckless choices. Ball and Hissong bring a gravity to their roles. They are men who are devoted to England and the proper governing of the realm.

Ball is the angry John of Gaunt, a man whose bitterness first begins to show when his son, Bolingbroke, is exiled from the country. From his wheelchair, he delivers a blistering assessment of the realm and takes the king to task, imploring him to change his ways. Ball is ever a strong presence in the Festival, and he provides balance to Richard’s youthful negligence. When he comes back later as a gardener in a brief scene, he sports a low-class accent and takes on an all-new persona.

Hissong portrays the heaviness of loyalty to the crown and the tough decisions that come along with it when faced with overwhelming odds. His Duke of York is a man of principles and Hissong displays the courage and compromise necessary for a man thrust into royal politics and the struggle for a throne and a crown.

Richard’s nemesis, Henry Bolingbroke, is played by Robert McLean and he creates a young man who is the diametric opposite to his king. Where Richard is insolent, Henry is intense and honor-bound. Where Richard’s approach to conquest and war is eager and pursued with gleeful excitement, Henry’s is sober and commanding. McLean plays up the differences between the two men, creating a contrast that is especially powerful when the two men meet late in the play in the royal throne room for the final determination of power.

This is mostly a man’s play, with all the action being determined by the men in charge or wanting to be in charge. However, there are two particularly strong women in the play who have their own parts to play. Janet Haley, this year’s poster child and mainstay on the Michigan Shakespeare Festival stage, is Richard’s aunt, wife to the principled York and mother of a treasonous son. She is devoted to family, something seen early on in her interactions with Gaunt, but really coming out late in the play when she is forced to plead for her son’s life on her knees. Even kneeling, Haley is a powerful force, one no ruler can resist. She is eloquent in her son’s defense and creates stakes that are high for the audience on behalf of a character that is not otherwise thrust into the limelight.

The other strong woman in the show is Anu Bhatt’s Queen Isabella. Director Jan Blixt gives her unspoken moments with the king early on that show her influence in court and her connection with her husband. From there Bhatt creates a chemistry between the two and displays a devotion to her husband that withstands all the challenges it faces. Her loneliness and heartbreak is touching and Bhatt underlines the fate and loss that Richard experiences.

Blixt makes several choices to bring this production into the present, evoking current headlines such as the British prime minister’s overturning of the cabinet and installation of new ones, the rashness and isolating nature of American electoral politics and even the most recent coup attempt in Turkey. She starts by calling upon Costume Designer Suzanne Hopgood to put her men in suits with prep school badges worn on their coats and the women in modern dresses. They’re modern, but still mostly formal. Only those who are outside the realm of nobility discard the formality of suits for casual dress.

Blixt also directs her cast to move in more modern ways, affecting modern mannerisms and deliveries of speech. This brings the complicated cast of characters closer to the audience, making them more relatable and casting the spotlight on the political nature of the play. It’s a choice that is effective for this play, making it more accessible as a heavy history filled with narrative.

Jeromy Hopgood’s set is a simple one with a movable bench creating throne rooms, castles and private rooms with a quick move across the stage. A large set piece in the back warns of the decline of a realm while hanging stained glass windows evoke the religious mandate frequently referred to in the show.

“Richard II” is devoted to the details and this production commits to telling a historical tale in which a careless ruler must face the consequences of his actions and his disregard for the conventions of the time. It can get heavy at times, a likely reason it is so rarely done. But for fans of Shakespeare or of history, it is a rare opportunity to witness the struggle between forces of a kingdom as it must choose the type of rule it will have.

 

MSF transforms “As You Like It” in to a new and lovely tale

 

by Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan

 

 

JACKSON, Mich.–When you have a star—like the Michigan Shakespeare Festival has in Janet Haley—it’s not surprising that you would not only pick your season around her talents, but that you might rewrite the play to put the spotlight on her abilities.

That’s what Director Robert Kauzlaric has done with Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, As You Like It. He’s not only rearranged the play, but he’s given lines to different people, moved around some of the more famous speeches, created encounters where the original play had none and expanded the theatricality of the show to put an emphasis on the redemptive power of storytelling.

How is this done? Primarily by making Jacques, the part played by Haley, into a major mover and shaker in the play. She’s not only an attendant of the exiled duke, she’s also narrator, poet and observer. She co-opts one of Rosalind’s famed monologues and owns the show’s launch. Haley is more than up for the part.

Haley is literature’s first Emo character, moping about deep in melancholy, caught up in the hardships of life in the forest. But she is also observer of the city and the court, telling the audience of all that has come before the show while the characters perform it in mime behind her. She starts with a prosaic quip, one the director will use again to launch one of the play’s more unexpected conversions. From there she shows herself to be the play’s wise fool, usurping Touchstone in the role who becomes more of an actor than an observer, in one of Shakespeare’s twists from his usual choice. Haley’s Jacques spies and teaches, spouting wisdom with the light-footedness of a jester and the demeanor of one in mourning. She makes each line count, delivering the Bard’s lines with clarity and purpose.

Despite this elevation of the character of Jacques, As You Like It remains one in which the heroine, Rosalind, takes center stage. Larissa Marten plays this self-actualizing heroine, one who takes charge of her own fate and dictates the actions that will take her to her ultimate goal. Marten imbues the character with both a strength and a vulnerable joy that greets the circumstances of the world. She is wise, but still capable of being surprised at the twists and turns that love enforces on its practitioners.

Marten is especially effective in the way she relates to others. She is joyfully intimate with Anu Bhatt’s Celia, creating a sisterly bond that is unbreakable despite the usurping duke’s efforts. She and Bhatt shine with a brightness on the otherwise darkly lit stage. They’re playful vocally and active physically. Marten is particularly amusing in the scenes where she pretending to be a man and pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. She is distinctly comedic and invites genuine laughter from the audience.

As the object of her affection, Brandon A. Wright’s Orlando is a forlorn but happy lover, a violent, put-upon younger brother, and the caretaker of an older, devoted servant. He wears all the different emotions well, giving himself over totally to each one in turn. He gets the most stage time as the mooning lover, fully thrown over after but a single meeting with the object of his affection. He masters both the physicality and the emotion of Orlando, moving with purpose and communicating strongly his intentions. Some of his choices are strangely modern, invoking laughter and amusement but sometimes seeming out of place in a play where no one else does the same.

As anyone who saw the MSF’s Importance of Being Earnest, with its scene-stealing butlers, knows, the directors of these productions are willing to let the most minor of characters take the spotlight. In this show, it was the animals that oft became the central comedic part in the scene. Sheep, goats, birds and deer were all a part of the scene and even without lines, managed to make their presence known in a memorable fashion.

In this play filled with memorable women, Kate Suffern makes sure her shepherdess, Phebe, joins the ranks. She starts as the disdainful lass rejecting the devoted suit of Eric Eilersen’s Silvius. She then makes her mark as the saucy wench who falls in love with the disguised Rosalind. She transforms immediately into a sex kitten, turning her shepherd’s crook into the equivalent of a stripper’s pole. She reminds us of just how bawdy Shakespeare can be, especially when given free rein by Director Kauzlaric.

While Kauzlaric strums the underlying themes of As You Like It like a finely-tuned lute, he never forgets that this is a comedy. There are plenty of shadows in David Stoughton’s lighting design, but the characters tarry only momentarily in them, quickly finding their way back to lightness and humor.

The technical elements all meet the usual high standards of the MSF company. Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design combines court and forest with pieces that fly quickly in and out and can be moved about to create different places in the forest. It is simple, but effective and keeps things flowing without pause.

Fight director David Blixt remains committed to storytelling over choreography, without ever sacrificing the latter. The narrative power of the fighting and its ability to contribute to comedy is especially strong in the wrestling scene early in the play between Orlando and Charles.

Aly Renee Amidei returns as the costumer and she helps make the distinction between court and forest with her choices of outfits. Her costuming fits so well into the story and the characters’ personalities that it almost goes unnoted. It is not an end to itself, but a means of telling the story.

Overall, Kauzlaric uses As You Like It as a vehicle to celebrate love, storytelling and redemption. It makes merry with Shakespeare with its language–its fully fleshed out characters, its twists and turns and its inherent comedy. There are weddings, fighting, cross-dressing, monologuing and mistaken identity. All’s that missing is the dancing.

2015 Season Reviews

Shakespeare fest’s ‘Henry IV’ is a memorable marathon

By John Monaghan for The Detroit Free Press

4 Stars out of 4 Stars

 

The humor, personal drama and spectacle of “Henry IV,” parts 1 and 2, are all on display in the new production of Henry IV at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival.

 

This isn’t the first production that combines the Bard’s two full-length historical dramas into one marathon evening, but few have done so this smartly. Director Janice Blixt and her talented 20-person ensemble mold what could have been an unwieldy show into something at once understandable, moving and, at 3 hours and 12 minutes, not all that taxing to sit through.

 

The focus here is not so much on the title character as his son, Prince Hal (Shawn Pfautsch), who is later immortalized in his own play, “Henry V.” As a young man, he is not so much prepping for the throne as sowing his wild oats, usually in the company of Sir John Falstaff (Alan Ball), a rascal four times his age and at least three times his size.

 

David Turrentine plays the reigning king, who is obviously concerned about his son. He is also dealing with insurrection in his kingdom and an upcoming battle in which Hal will get a chance to prove his worth.

 

Those battle scenes are masterfully choreographed by David Blixt, who uses every inch of his large, open stage. Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design is sparse and no-nonsense, with heavy moving pieces wheeled across the stage and panels lowered from the rafters, giving the stage added dimension.

 

Pfautsch, who made a good Hamlet last year, is even better as Hal. A favorite scene has him play-acting an upcoming exchange he will have with the king. As both he and Falstaff adopt the various roles, the scene speaks volumes about their self-image. Hal shows that he understands his father’s disapproval, and Falstaff displays an ego as big as he is.

 

Of course, Falstaff is not altogether fool as he proves in a soliloquy about honor that precedes the bloody conflict that caps the first half.

Festival regular Alan Ball is delightful as Falstaff. To make up for the weight difference between actor and character, costume designer Lauren Montgomery fashions a hooped affair beneath his loosely fitting tunic that he manipulates convincingly for even bigger laughs.

 

There are also standouts in the supporting roles, including fest newcomer Milan Malisic as a hot-blooded Hotspur, one of the leaders of the insurrection. His showdown with Hal is expertly staged, as are romantic scenes with wife Kate, played by recent Hilberry grad Annie Keris, holding her own in what has always been an extremely male-dominated outing.

 

“Henry IV” also includes the welcome return of Edmund Alyn Jones, another Hilberry alum, who plays the king’s loyal counselor, Westmoreland. As with Turrentine’s Henry, Jones has his best scenes in the second half of the play.

 

If the end of the show is rather anticlimactic (at least compared with the battle scenes that end “Part 1”), it nonetheless packs a punch. Adapter Blixt doesn’t miss a word in the final exchange between the current and future king. This production left me hoping that the fest soon tackles “Henry V,” hopefully with much the same cast.

 

While I saw “Henry IV” at the Shakespeare fest’s longtime home in Jackson, the production arrives next week at the Village Theater in Canton. For those who have stayed away because of distance, there is now no excuse for not seeing what remains the area’s best and most consistent staging of history's greatest playwright.

 

 

 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival Brings Magical "Midsummer" to Canton

By Patty Nolan for the Detroit Examiner

 

You gotta see Alan Ball’s Bottom. And Evelyn Blixt’s Peaseblossom is pretty adorable, too.

 

In truth, each member of the cast of Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has specific moments when their stage business, gestures, physical prowess or physical comedy draw appreciative snickers, sighs, and snorts from the audience. And now that the 2015 MSF troupe has moved to its Canton location at the Village Theatre, east-siders can easily seize the opportunity to enjoy this award-winning MSF company in action.

 

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of those rare plays that can be seen over and over again; there are so many ways to interpret and stage the story that it always seems fresh. “Midsummer” is, of course, all about enchantment – faerie magic, to be sure – but also the older and more universal magic of romantic love.

 

As the play opens, Theseus (Matthew Fahey) has won the hand of Hippolyta (Annie Keris) in war but now woos it with true affection. Hermia (Lydia Hiller) loves Lysander (Brandon St. Clair Saunders) against her father’s wishes and at the risk of her life. Demetrius (Milan Malisic) loves Hermia despite her rejection. Poor Helena (Laurel Schroeder)is smitten with an unrequited love for Demetrius that’s driving her to distraction. And all are imperiled by the wrath of Oberon, the Faery King, (David Blixt) whose unreasonable jealousy has estranged him from his beloved Queen Titania (Janet Haley), and caused him to set Puck (Shawn Pfautsch) on a binge of mischief-making.

 

Enter the rag-tag band of mummers – local workmen who’ve created their own “community theatre” production, hoping to perform their play at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. (David Turrentine as Quince, Dan Wilson as Snug, Edmund Alyn Jones as Snout, Eric Eilersen as Flute, Andy Head as Starveling, and, as noted, the brilliant Alan Ball as Bottom, present a gem-like ensemble all their own.) Of course they want to rehearse on the green sward of grass in the forest, where no one can spy on their clever devices. Of course, this clearing is the spot where the desperate lovers plan to meet and make their escape. And of course, this must certainly be a faery ring – the very spot where Moth (Sarah Pidgeon) and the other faery folk perform their nightly revels. As every fan of fairytales knows, whenever the filmy curtain that separates mortal beings from the immortals is torn asunder, mayhem and merriment are certain to follow.

 

“Midsummer” is always a treat, and this Michigan Shakespeare Festivalproduction is a gift wrapped in gauze, glitter, firefly light, wispy ground fog and dreamlike sounds and songs. (Scenic Design, Jeromy Hopgood; Lighting Design, Diane Fairchild; Music Composition and Sound Design, Kate Hopgood.) MSF Artistic Director Janice L. Blixt may dress her Athenians in modern garb, but the faeries, like the story itself, are classically timeless – with delicately pointed ears, filmy garments and brilliantly executed telekinetic powers. (Costume Design, Renae Skoog ; Properties, Betty Thomas; and Fight Choreography, David Blixt.)

 

This is a lovely, light-hearted and lithe production that is certain to please. But for all its charming illusions, Director Blixt gives us intentional glimpses of the societal hardwood obscured by filmy layers of laughter. Egeus (Rick Eva) will readily send his only daughter to her death rather than allow her to defy his will. The “good” Duke of Athens is ready to enforce a cruel, misogynistic law simply because he can’t imagine breaking with tradition. King Oberon steals the foundling godchild of his queen because he is threatened by any competition for her affections. And the hardworking, sincere little troupe of actors knows full-well that failure to please the court could mean destitution or even death. Even the Duke’s Major Domo (Daniel A. Helmer) does everything in his estimable power to prevent the humble group from mucking up the royal festivities.

 

Fortunately for the characters in this comedy, the love that inspires rebellion proves triumphant. And the victory of love’s own magic over the strong arm of the law gets to the bottom – and the heart – of everything that is right with this production. Don’t miss it.

 

 

 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 'The Rivals' spotlights human absurdity

by Jenn McKee for MLive.com

 

People often get nostalgic for "the way things used to be," as though humanity has collectively grown more shallow, and less cerebral and principled, over time.

 

But when you watch two grown men petulantly flicking gloves at each other during a production of a play that premiered in 1775 – specifically, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's staging of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals" – you're reminded that people have been absurd, particularly in matters of love, since the beginning of time.

 

MSF has just moved its three 2015 season shows-in-repertory ("A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Henry IV," and "The Rivals") to the Village Theatre in Canton, where the shows will play for three weeks, following a two week run at the Baughman Theatre in Jackson.

 

"The Rivals" tells the story of various love plots unfolding in the resort town of Bath. Captain Jack Absolute (Dan Wilson) has wooed romance-novel-addicted heiress Lydia Languish (Laurel Schroeder) by posing as a penniless officer named Ensign Beverly, though she's got two other suitors vying for her attentions: a buffoonish country gentleman named Bob Acres (Milan Malisic), and an Irish baronet named Lucius O'Trigger (David Blixt). 

 

Lydia's maid Lucy (Lydia Hiller) stands at the center of several romantic interactions, assuming a simple-minded persona in order to milk as much money from others as possible. She's delivered O'Trigger's love letters, intended for Lydia, to Lydia's strict, lexically challenged aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (Wendy Katz Hiller), who's fallen in love while responding to the letters and using a playful nom de plume. Finally, Lydia's cousin Julia (Annie Keris) is in love with neurotic Faulkland (Edmund Alan Jones), whose jealousy creates problems where there are none – a running them that lies at the heart of "The Rivals." 

 

Director Robert Kauzlaric takes pains to establish clarity – no small thing when there are so many plot wheels in motion – in the early going, so that the actors often verbally emphasize, or look to the audience, when a key piece of character or plot information is expressed, but he also manages keep the pace fairly brisk, particularly between scenes. (The show's running time is 2 hours and twenty minutes.)

 

But I'd argue that costume designer (and EMU professor) Melanie Schuessler is also one of the production's MVPs, hands down, particularly in regard to Bob Acres' over-the-top ensemble, which appears when the character's trying to look more cosmopolitan (blue wig, shoes with big, floppy bows, green-and-white striped stockings with green-patterned pants, etc.); and Mrs. Malaprop's large, wince-inducing, "shut up yellow" dress, with a skirt that's draped with pink and purple fabrics in a sad, confusing mish-mash, and an absurd pink bonnet with a red border. The moment Malaprop appears on stage – especially in contrast to highly fashionable Lydia and Julia - she's out of sync in every way: a fact that's reinforced once she opens her mouth and says things like, "Female punctuation forbids me to say more," and "He is the very pineapple of politeness."

 

Jeromy Hopgood's spare scenic design involves nothing more than a raised, smaller stage at the center of the Village Theater's stage; images of Bath's Royal Crescent as backdrop; and a few pieces of furniture that are quickly and easily shifted, or removed, when the play's locale changes. Diane Fairchild's lighting design guides the eye, and sets the mood for each scene, while also nicely executing Kauzlaric's clever scene transitions. Blixt's impressive fight choreography is on best display during a swordfight that happens late in the show; and dialect specialist Elise Kauzlaric has done fine work with the actors, giving the characters a stronger sense of place and personality through their vocal inflection.

 

The ensemble is strong across the board, with Wendy Katz Hiller having great fun delivering Malaprop's pompous-and-puzzling pronouncements; Wilson mentally scrambling as Jack's ruse falls apart (and Shawn Pfautsch does a great deal with the small role of Jack's servant); Jones, like an 18th century Woody Allen, endows Faulkland's neuroses with slow-burn inevitability; Schroeder drives the audience as crazy as she does her lover as she pouts and sabotages her own happiness; Malisic initially struck me as a bit too big and broad in his approach, but as the show progressed, he utterly won me over; and Ball often threatens to steal his scenes, especially by way of his reactions to Malaprop's baffling statements.

 

It must be said that transitioning from our fast-paced, tech-crazed 21st century lives to the world of an 18th century comedy takes a while, even when the production is as strong as MSF's. (Yes, I had a snorer sitting next to me at the matinee performance on Wednesday.) And though Kauzlaric and his team have, in many ways, "goosed" the play to make it feel more familiar and modern, it's still often a play that elicits more polite chuckles than raucous laughter.

 

Even so, chances to see "The Rivals," let alone a really good production of it, are rare, and there's great value – particularly among those interested in theater – in revisiting a classic that reminds you of not necessarily how far we've come, but rather how much, in regard to the foolishness that stems from human ego, has remained constant.

 

A Midsummer Night's Delight

By David Kiley for EncoreMichigan

 

When Shakespearean actors appear on stage in suits, corduroy jackets and sweater vests, amidst a forest setting, everyone’s “uh-oh” antennas should go up. It’s a hole in which the credibility of the cast and director begins the night. However, the cast of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival in Jackson quickly ascends from the hole, and brings their audience along for an utterly memorable and delightful evening of laughs and smiles that brings this centuries-old text to life in a new and fresh way.

 

The plot of “Midsummer” is a bit convoluted, so unless you are a Bard aficionado a quick review of the plot summary is advised before the action starts. The story surrounds the marriage of Theseus, the Duke of Athens (Matthew Fahey], and Hippolyta (Annie Keris), and expands to include the embattled passions of four young Athenian lovers—Hermia (Lydia Hiller), Lysander (Brandon St. Clair Saunders), Helena (Laurel Schroeder) and Demetrius (Milan Malisic), and a group of tradesmen turned actors, known as The Mechanicals, trying to put on a show inside the play. Of course, what gives the story, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays to perform, the added oomph of the surreal are the faeries and spirits who inhabit the forest and manipulate the mortals.

 

The set is static throughout, a very simple forest settings with fabric curtains descending from the lights to represent trees, with a bit of green forest canopy laid in above and down stage to convey the right aura. The simplicity is a wise choice, as it gives the actors, 19 of them, room to romp, cavort, pine, fight and frolic. There are two stage balcony spaces that are used deftly as well.

 

The four intertwined lovers play wonderfully off one another as they sort out who they really want to marry (of course, not who their parents want them to), taking their passion to almost Three Stooges-like slapstick as when Hermia and Helena both hug their lovers legs as they get dragged around stage. The Stooges seem to be an influence on director Janice L. Blixt as she turned to Curley-and-Moe-like bits of business between Demetrius and Lysander as well. It all worked fine, and was not overdone, drawing great belly-laughs from the audience.

 

The Mechanicals worked as a tight and funny band within the cast, conjuring to mind at times the very best bits from Monty Python. It’s difficult not to call out Alan Ball as Bottom/the weaver, for his big stage presence and timing, and Edmund Alyn Jones who is funny and sweet, and adds polish to everything we have seen him in. But in truth all the Mechanicals were spot on. Blixt dances with a smidge too much modernity when the band takes out an iPhone and asks Siri for help with the moonlight, and when they share a tin of Altoids; it was a bit too much butter in the frosting but not so much to ruin the cake.

 

Costuming was deftly handled, with the mortal rich in modern dress, the Mechanicals in working-class/tradesmen clothes, and the faeries in…well…faerie dress and wearing bejeweled prosthetic ears. It sounds a bit of a mish-mosh, but actually worked perfectly. Shawn Pfautsch, who performed the title role of Hamlet in the festival last year, was an excellent Puck, a pivotal role to keep the play paced properly. David Blixt was commanding as Oberon, King of the Faeries.

 

The excellent results in this ‘Midsummer” production are very much due to a top-drawer, tightly knit ensemble rather than huge standout individual performances, and that is a credit to Blixt in casting and directing the multi-layered story with so many players and plot twists.

 

It should be said that this is a seasoned troupe of players with a terrific grasp of acting the Bard, and bringing the Elizabethan verse into a modern context that makes it wonderfully relevant and accessible to even someone whose closest brush with Shakespeare are the occasional send-ups on "The Simpsons."

 

 

 

Shakespeare like you've never seen... really!

Henry IV

Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan

 

Posted: July 20, 2015 at 11:00 a.m.

 

It’s no exaggeration to say you haven’t seen this Shakespeare play before.

 

Janice L Blixt, artistic director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, has combined Henry IV parts 1 and 2 into a single play, Henry IV, and put it up on the stage in a three-hour span. Epic in scale, the history takes the audience from the throne room of London to the battlefields of the North, with Scottish lords joining English ones in rebellion.

 

Blixt directs this adaptation with a cast of 19. It’s a cast from which much is demanded and more is given. Blixt knows how to double her cast and keep them coming back to fully populate Henry’s England. She also keeps the pace marching forward with actors filling the stage and finding humor amid the seriousness of the story.

 

In this adaptation, the emphasis is put on Prince Hal and his relationship with his father. Prince Hal, played by Shawn Pfautsch, is dissolute and given much to women and wine. While his father, played by David Turrentine, is heavy with the affairs of state and given to distemper and anger, young Hal is caught up in pranks with Sir John Falstaff (Alan Ball) and his companions.

Yet, when war catches up to the kingdom and young Hotspur (Milan Malisic) leads armies in revolt, Hal steps up to prove his worthiness to his father.

 

Turrentine is regal as the aging king and gives stature to the king’s tempers. This is no common man engaging in a rage. Turrentine carries Henry with a dignity that sets him apart from his lords and the few commoners that populate the play. He is always grave and worn with care. We see the greatest depth in his Henry during his death scene where he goes from berating his son to giving him his blessing and wishing peace for his reign.

 

Pfautsch brings great charisma to Hal. He’s a rapscallion who is as carefree as his father is laden. He imbues the young prince with humors that make him a stranger to his father, though there are visions in him of the king he will become. His opening scene, taking place in a large bed, establish him as a playboy given over to pranks and hedonism. Pfautsch easily handles both the roustabout and the more princely Hal, reconciling them in a way that is credible.

 

Malisic’s Hotspur has the temper of the king and the youth of the prince. He is a young lion who suffers no pretense or disagreement. He reveals this temper well in the scene following his audience with the king where he shows himself disobedient to the king’s will and determined to flaunt the king’s orders. Even his friend and kin, who is sympathetic to his rant, cannot calm him or distract him with talk of plans.

 

It is in the two Henry plays that Queen Elizabeth famously fell in love with Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight who leads Hal astray and is notorious in his tale-telling and lies. He disrespects everyone but still manages to entertain his comrades. In this version, Ball dons the fat suit and is Hal’s disreputable companion. Falstaff follows Hal to war and reveals himself a coward incapable of great deeds. Yet, Ball gives the audience reason to like Falstaff—not for any noble characteristics, but because he is honest with us about honor, greed and selfishness.

 

And for those who attend Shakespeare because they like the sword fighting, Henry IV won’t disappoint. This is a war play and the first act ends with a great battle that brings out the whole company for intensive sword fights that range from single duels to large-scale group battles. Fight Director David Blixt (who also plays Owain Glyndwr, Douglas and the Archbishop of York) choreographs an exciting battle that encompasses several fighting styles from great-sword to axe to sword and shield.

 

If there is a flaw in this production, it comes in the two plays together. After the huge battle, there is a resolution and intermission comes at a time that feels like an ending, in part because it is. The conflict is over, father and son are reconciled, enemies are slain and Falstaff is shown to again be ridiculous. There is no compelling reason for the play to continue and post-intermission feels like starting over. The story is repeating itself and the audience must once again reinvest itself in a story that feels resolved.

 

This is especially true for the main theme of the play—the relationship between father and son. The tension between them dissipates at the end of the first half, as Hal proves himself on the battlefield and gives his father reason to be proud of him. But then things pick up after intermission with Hal back in the tavern and his father once again disapproving. The strength of this play is in the first half, though the ending of the second half does draw things back into a sharp focus with the transformation of Hal from prince to king.

 

Anyone who has attended the Michigan Shakespeare Festival knows that it spares nothing in its production values to bring on the highest quality shows. The design team is as committed to storytelling as the artistic team and this is certainly true with Henry IV. Scenic Designer Jeromy Hopgood is able to take the audience from battlefield to throne-room to tavern with backdrops that fly in and furniture the cast rolls in before their scene. The furnishings are heavy and thick, speaking to the seriousness and weight of the play’s matters.

 

Lauren Montgomery is detailed in her costume design, particularly with the boots and the armor that combatants wear. Once again original music is provided by composer Kate Hopgood and she creates a soundtrack that is epic in scale and sets the mood for this brutal war story.

 

It isn’t often that Henry IV is performed—either part one or part two. This production is populated with fine storytellers who all work seamlessly together—from every foot soldier to each designer and tech to the leads—each person gives a fully committed performance that tells the story of Henry and Hal, and the kingdom that each bear responsibility for.

 

Run time 7:30 to 10:42, with one intermission

 

“Rivals” a hearty stew of comedy to be eaten with gusto

by Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan

 

Posted: July 21, 2015 at 9:00 a.m.

 

It’s nearly impossible to say too much good about Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals” at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. There are so many things in it that are delightful--individual performances, the accents, the elevated language, the malapropisms, the costumes, the set, the exaggerated movements, the asides, the sword fighting.

 

It’s an all-together satisfying afternoon at the theater. Traditionally, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival annually performs two Shakespeare plays and one classic. This year the classic is Sheridan’s “The Rivals,” written in 1775 and a favorite play of George Washington’s.

 

It is set in Bath, where lovers gather to woo and others gather to take the waters and cure their gout. Lydia Languish (Laurel Schroeder) is a young heiress who has no shortage of wooers. She has fallen in love with Ensign Beverly, who is really Captain Jack Absolute (Dan Wilson) in disguise. She is in love with the idea of marrying a poor soldier without her guardian’s permission. Her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop (Wendy Katz Hiller) forbids the match while she carries on a written liaison with Sir Lucius O’Trigger (David Blixt), under the name of Delia, whom O’Trigger thinks is Lydia, thanks to the machinations of the maid (Lydia Hiller). Meanwhile Jack’s friend Bob Acres (Milan Malisic) is also courting Lydia.

Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Alan Ball), then shows up with an arranged marriage for Jack—to Lydia. Throw in a mix of servants who all share their masters’ secrets and carry messages, and you have all the makings of this centuries-old comedy.

 

Director Robert Kauzlaric gives each character the room to be unique and interesting. He cut the play so that it flows smoothly and never lags. His blocking is a thing of beauty, one that adds to the comedy as players create stairs where none seem to exist, crosses create the traffic of Bath in the opening, and the final denouement presents a stage picture where all are shown off to their best advantage.

 

Dialect specialist Elise Kauzlaric deserves a special shout-out as she coached the actors in a number of different dialects and accents. Everyone had an accent and there was a distinct sound between the classes, city and country folk.

 

It’s hard to single out any actor in this production when all were played with such singularity and hilarity. These are actors at the top of their craft. Yet, it would be remiss not to mention many of the fine performances that went into making this comedy so enjoyable.

 

Ball has swagger as the father who expects his every whim to be obeyed and his quarrel with his son shows off just some of Ball’s comic range. Wilson is cool and collected as Capt. Jack, giving him a confidence that he’s going to be able to pull off all his plans even when they start to fall apart around him. He ends up playing straight man to the bigger characters around him.

 

Edmund Alyn Jones plays Faulkland, Jack’s friend who is wooing Julia (Annie Keris). He frets over her fidelity, despite all the evidence that she is true to him. Faulkland is one of those people who puts the worst possible interpretation on everything out of his own jealousies and Jones makes this a comic rather than tragic figure. His mourning is foppish as is his inability to be consoled with fact or reason. Keris balances him out perfectly with her steadfastness and by being the very picture of all that Faulkland knows he wants and worries he doesn’t have. Julia endures his bad behavior and even defends it.

 

Malisic plays up the difference between the old rich and the new in such a way that spins comic gold. His physicality is huge and he adopts affectations in an attempt to fit in among the wealthy. Everything about him is at odds with the other gentlemen, and he plays it up so that even to modern eyes the difference between class is obvious. He’s given a great assist by the costumer Melanie Schuessler when in the second act he comes out with blue hair and a tacky multi-colored outfit, but by then he’s already established that he is out of place and a comic figure for the audience and those in the play alike.

 

Blixt grounds O’Trigger with a gravitas that is in perfect contrast to Malisic’s outlandishness. Their scenes together work especially well as each one highlights the other’s personality. Blixt also doubles as the fight director and O’Trigger’s sword fight with Jack is skilled and filled with finesse.

 

Schroeder holds her own as the romance-addicted maiden who is more in love with love than with her lover. She is impish and impudent with her guardian, pouty with her friend and entranced with her lover until it comes time for them to quarrel. It is not entirely her fault that she is overshadowed by the bigger-than-life Mrs. Malaprop. Blame that instead on the costumer and Wendy Katz Hiller who fills the stage both with her 4-foot wide dress and her over-the-top behavior. Hiller owns the stage when she is on it and she charges through malaprop after malaprop without the slightest hesitation.

 

Lydia Hiller adds much to the role of Lucy, Lydia’s maid. She affects a simplicity with raised hands and open mouth that makes her seem quite daft and then drops it all in an instant when revealing how she schemes to make money from everyone. It’s a delicious contrast that adds spice to this already hearty stew of a comedy.

 

Schuessler’s costumes deserve their own curtain call. In particular, Mrs. Malaprop’s costume is tacky in the extreme, perfect for her character. The four-foot wide lemon yellow skirt is bedecked with swathes of orange, light blue and purple fabric. In contrast, the dresses of Lydia and Julia are beautiful and tasteful. Each character gets an outfit that is true to their character and evokes the period well.

 

“The Rivals” may not be the best known of the classic comedies, but in the hands of Kauzlaric and his team it is well-worth seeing. This comedy of manners tickles, woos and entertains its audiences.

 

Run time: 2 p.m. to 4:44, with one intermission.

 

Shakespeare fest’s ‘Henry IV’ is a memorable marathon

By John Monaghan for The Detroit Free Press

4 Stars out of 4 Stars

 

The humor, personal drama and spectacle of “Henry IV,” parts 1 and 2, are all on display in the new production of Henry IV at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival.

 

This isn’t the first production that combines the Bard’s two full-length historical dramas into one marathon evening, but few have done so this smartly. Director Janice Blixt and her talented 20-person ensemble mold what could have been an unwieldy show into something at once understandable, moving and, at 3 hours and 12 minutes, not all that taxing to sit through.

 

The focus here is not so much on the title character as his son, Prince Hal (Shawn Pfautsch), who is later immortalized in his own play, “Henry V.” As a young man, he is not so much prepping for the throne as sowing his wild oats, usually in the company of Sir John Falstaff (Alan Ball), a rascal four times his age and at least three times his size.

 

David Turrentine plays the reigning king, who is obviously concerned about his son. He is also dealing with insurrection in his kingdom and an upcoming battle in which Hal will get a chance to prove his worth.

 

Those battle scenes are masterfully choreographed by David Blixt, who uses every inch of his large, open stage. Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design is sparse and no-nonsense, with heavy moving pieces wheeled across the stage and panels lowered from the rafters, giving the stage added dimension.

 

Pfautsch, who made a good Hamlet last year, is even better as Hal. A favorite scene has him play-acting an upcoming exchange he will have with the king. As both he and Falstaff adopt the various roles, the scene speaks volumes about their self-image. Hal shows that he understands his father’s disapproval, and Falstaff displays an ego as big as he is.

 

Of course, Falstaff is not altogether fool as he proves in a soliloquy about honor that precedes the bloody conflict that caps the first half.

Festival regular Alan Ball is delightful as Falstaff. To make up for the weight difference between actor and character, costume designer Lauren Montgomery fashions a hooped affair beneath his loosely fitting tunic that he manipulates convincingly for even bigger laughs.

 

There are also standouts in the supporting roles, including fest newcomer Milan Malisic as a hot-blooded Hotspur, one of the leaders of the insurrection. His showdown with Hal is expertly staged, as are romantic scenes with wife Kate, played by recent Hilberry grad Annie Keris, holding her own in what has always been an extremely male-dominated outing.

 

“Henry IV” also includes the welcome return of Edmund Alyn Jones, another Hilberry alum, who plays the king’s loyal counselor, Westmoreland. As with Turrentine’s Henry, Jones has his best scenes in the second half of the play.

 

If the end of the show is rather anticlimactic (at least compared with the battle scenes that end “Part 1”), it nonetheless packs a punch. Adapter Blixt doesn’t miss a word in the final exchange between the current and future king. This production left me hoping that the fest soon tackles “Henry V,” hopefully with much the same cast.

 

While I saw “Henry IV” at the Shakespeare fest’s longtime home in Jackson, the production arrives next week at the Village Theater in Canton. For those who have stayed away because of distance, there is now no excuse for not seeing what remains the area’s best and most consistent staging of history's greatest playwright.

 

 

 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival Brings Magical "Midsummer" to Canton

By Patty Nolan for the Detroit Examiner

 

You gotta see Alan Ball’s Bottom. And Evelyn Blixt’s Peaseblossom is pretty adorable, too.

 

In truth, each member of the cast of Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has specific moments when their stage business, gestures, physical prowess or physical comedy draw appreciative snickers, sighs, and snorts from the audience. And now that the 2015 MSF troupe has moved to its Canton location at the Village Theatre, east-siders can easily seize the opportunity to enjoy this award-winning MSF company in action.

 

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of those rare plays that can be seen over and over again; there are so many ways to interpret and stage the story that it always seems fresh. “Midsummer” is, of course, all about enchantment – faerie magic, to be sure – but also the older and more universal magic of romantic love.

 

As the play opens, Theseus (Matthew Fahey) has won the hand of Hippolyta (Annie Keris) in war but now woos it with true affection. Hermia (Lydia Hiller) loves Lysander (Brandon St. Clair Saunders) against her father’s wishes and at the risk of her life. Demetrius (Milan Malisic) loves Hermia despite her rejection. Poor Helena (Laurel Schroeder)is smitten with an unrequited love for Demetrius that’s driving her to distraction. And all are imperiled by the wrath of Oberon, the Faery King, (David Blixt) whose unreasonable jealousy has estranged him from his beloved Queen Titania (Janet Haley), and caused him to set Puck (Shawn Pfautsch) on a binge of mischief-making.

 

Enter the rag-tag band of mummers – local workmen who’ve created their own “community theatre” production, hoping to perform their play at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. (David Turrentine as Quince, Dan Wilson as Snug, Edmund Alyn Jones as Snout, Eric Eilersen as Flute, Andy Head as Starveling, and, as noted, the brilliant Alan Ball as Bottom, present a gem-like ensemble all their own.) Of course they want to rehearse on the green sward of grass in the forest, where no one can spy on their clever devices. Of course, this clearing is the spot where the desperate lovers plan to meet and make their escape. And of course, this must certainly be a faery ring – the very spot where Moth (Sarah Pidgeon) and the other faery folk perform their nightly revels. As every fan of fairytales knows, whenever the filmy curtain that separates mortal beings from the immortals is torn asunder, mayhem and merriment are certain to follow.

 

“Midsummer” is always a treat, and this Michigan Shakespeare Festivalproduction is a gift wrapped in gauze, glitter, firefly light, wispy ground fog and dreamlike sounds and songs. (Scenic Design, Jeromy Hopgood; Lighting Design, Diane Fairchild; Music Composition and Sound Design, Kate Hopgood.) MSF Artistic Director Janice L. Blixt may dress her Athenians in modern garb, but the faeries, like the story itself, are classically timeless – with delicately pointed ears, filmy garments and brilliantly executed telekinetic powers. (Costume Design, Renae Skoog ; Properties, Betty Thomas; and Fight Choreography, David Blixt.)

 

This is a lovely, light-hearted and lithe production that is certain to please. But for all its charming illusions, Director Blixt gives us intentional glimpses of the societal hardwood obscured by filmy layers of laughter. Egeus (Rick Eva) will readily send his only daughter to her death rather than allow her to defy his will. The “good” Duke of Athens is ready to enforce a cruel, misogynistic law simply because he can’t imagine breaking with tradition. King Oberon steals the foundling godchild of his queen because he is threatened by any competition for her affections. And the hardworking, sincere little troupe of actors knows full-well that failure to please the court could mean destitution or even death. Even the Duke’s Major Domo (Daniel A. Helmer) does everything in his estimable power to prevent the humble group from mucking up the royal festivities.

 

Fortunately for the characters in this comedy, the love that inspires rebellion proves triumphant. And the victory of love’s own magic over the strong arm of the law gets to the bottom – and the heart – of everything that is right with this production. Don’t miss it.

 

 

 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 'The Rivals' spotlights human absurdity

by Jenn McKee for MLive.com

 

People often get nostalgic for "the way things used to be," as though humanity has collectively grown more shallow, and less cerebral and principled, over time.

 

But when you watch two grown men petulantly flicking gloves at each other during a production of a play that premiered in 1775 – specifically, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's staging of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals" – you're reminded that people have been absurd, particularly in matters of love, since the beginning of time.

 

MSF has just moved its three 2015 season shows-in-repertory ("A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Henry IV," and "The Rivals") to the Village Theatre in Canton, where the shows will play for three weeks, following a two week run at the Baughman Theatre in Jackson.

 

"The Rivals" tells the story of various love plots unfolding in the resort town of Bath. Captain Jack Absolute (Dan Wilson) has wooed romance-novel-addicted heiress Lydia Languish (Laurel Schroeder) by posing as a penniless officer named Ensign Beverly, though she's got two other suitors vying for her attentions: a buffoonish country gentleman named Bob Acres (Milan Malisic), and an Irish baronet named Lucius O'Trigger (David Blixt). 

 

Lydia's maid Lucy (Lydia Hiller) stands at the center of several romantic interactions, assuming a simple-minded persona in order to milk as much money from others as possible. She's delivered O'Trigger's love letters, intended for Lydia, to Lydia's strict, lexically challenged aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (Wendy Katz Hiller), who's fallen in love while responding to the letters and using a playful nom de plume. Finally, Lydia's cousin Julia (Annie Keris) is in love with neurotic Faulkland (Edmund Alan Jones), whose jealousy creates problems where there are none – a running them that lies at the heart of "The Rivals." 

 

Director Robert Kauzlaric takes pains to establish clarity – no small thing when there are so many plot wheels in motion – in the early going, so that the actors often verbally emphasize, or look to the audience, when a key piece of character or plot information is expressed, but he also manages keep the pace fairly brisk, particularly between scenes. (The show's running time is 2 hours and twenty minutes.)

 

But I'd argue that costume designer (and EMU professor) Melanie Schuessler is also one of the production's MVPs, hands down, particularly in regard to Bob Acres' over-the-top ensemble, which appears when the character's trying to look more cosmopolitan (blue wig, shoes with big, floppy bows, green-and-white striped stockings with green-patterned pants, etc.); and Mrs. Malaprop's large, wince-inducing, "shut up yellow" dress, with a skirt that's draped with pink and purple fabrics in a sad, confusing mish-mash, and an absurd pink bonnet with a red border. The moment Malaprop appears on stage – especially in contrast to highly fashionable Lydia and Julia - she's out of sync in every way: a fact that's reinforced once she opens her mouth and says things like, "Female punctuation forbids me to say more," and "He is the very pineapple of politeness."

 

Jeromy Hopgood's spare scenic design involves nothing more than a raised, smaller stage at the center of the Village Theater's stage; images of Bath's Royal Crescent as backdrop; and a few pieces of furniture that are quickly and easily shifted, or removed, when the play's locale changes. Diane Fairchild's lighting design guides the eye, and sets the mood for each scene, while also nicely executing Kauzlaric's clever scene transitions. Blixt's impressive fight choreography is on best display during a swordfight that happens late in the show; and dialect specialist Elise Kauzlaric has done fine work with the actors, giving the characters a stronger sense of place and personality through their vocal inflection.

 

The ensemble is strong across the board, with Wendy Katz Hiller having great fun delivering Malaprop's pompous-and-puzzling pronouncements; Wilson mentally scrambling as Jack's ruse falls apart (and Shawn Pfautsch does a great deal with the small role of Jack's servant); Jones, like an 18th century Woody Allen, endows Faulkland's neuroses with slow-burn inevitability; Schroeder drives the audience as crazy as she does her lover as she pouts and sabotages her own happiness; Malisic initially struck me as a bit too big and broad in his approach, but as the show progressed, he utterly won me over; and Ball often threatens to steal his scenes, especially by way of his reactions to Malaprop's baffling statements.

 

It must be said that transitioning from our fast-paced, tech-crazed 21st century lives to the world of an 18th century comedy takes a while, even when the production is as strong as MSF's. (Yes, I had a snorer sitting next to me at the matinee performance on Wednesday.) And though Kauzlaric and his team have, in many ways, "goosed" the play to make it feel more familiar and modern, it's still often a play that elicits more polite chuckles than raucous laughter.

 

Even so, chances to see "The Rivals," let alone a really good production of it, are rare, and there's great value – particularly among those interested in theater – in revisiting a classic that reminds you of not necessarily how far we've come, but rather how much, in regard to the foolishness that stems from human ego, has remained constant.

 

A Midsummer Night's Delight

By David Kiley for EncoreMichigan

 

When Shakespearean actors appear on stage in suits, corduroy jackets and sweater vests, amidst a forest setting, everyone’s “uh-oh” antennas should go up. It’s a hole in which the credibility of the cast and director begins the night. However, the cast of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival in Jackson quickly ascends from the hole, and brings their audience along for an utterly memorable and delightful evening of laughs and smiles that brings this centuries-old text to life in a new and fresh way.

 

The plot of “Midsummer” is a bit convoluted, so unless you are a Bard aficionado a quick review of the plot summary is advised before the action starts. The story surrounds the marriage of Theseus, the Duke of Athens (Matthew Fahey], and Hippolyta (Annie Keris), and expands to include the embattled passions of four young Athenian lovers—Hermia (Lydia Hiller), Lysander (Brandon St. Clair Saunders), Helena (Laurel Schroeder) and Demetrius (Milan Malisic), and a group of tradesmen turned actors, known as The Mechanicals, trying to put on a show inside the play. Of course, what gives the story, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays to perform, the added oomph of the surreal are the faeries and spirits who inhabit the forest and manipulate the mortals.

 

The set is static throughout, a very simple forest settings with fabric curtains descending from the lights to represent trees, with a bit of green forest canopy laid in above and down stage to convey the right aura. The simplicity is a wise choice, as it gives the actors, 19 of them, room to romp, cavort, pine, fight and frolic. There are two stage balcony spaces that are used deftly as well.

 

The four intertwined lovers play wonderfully off one another as they sort out who they really want to marry (of course, not who their parents want them to), taking their passion to almost Three Stooges-like slapstick as when Hermia and Helena both hug their lovers legs as they get dragged around stage. The Stooges seem to be an influence on director Janice L. Blixt as she turned to Curley-and-Moe-like bits of business between Demetrius and Lysander as well. It all worked fine, and was not overdone, drawing great belly-laughs from the audience.

 

The Mechanicals worked as a tight and funny band within the cast, conjuring to mind at times the very best bits from Monty Python. It’s difficult not to call out Alan Ball as Bottom/the weaver, for his big stage presence and timing, and Edmund Alyn Jones who is funny and sweet, and adds polish to everything we have seen him in. But in truth all the Mechanicals were spot on. Blixt dances with a smidge too much modernity when the band takes out an iPhone and asks Siri for help with the moonlight, and when they share a tin of Altoids; it was a bit too much butter in the frosting but not so much to ruin the cake.

 

Costuming was deftly handled, with the mortal rich in modern dress, the Mechanicals in working-class/tradesmen clothes, and the faeries in…well…faerie dress and wearing bejeweled prosthetic ears. It sounds a bit of a mish-mosh, but actually worked perfectly. Shawn Pfautsch, who performed the title role of Hamlet in the festival last year, was an excellent Puck, a pivotal role to keep the play paced properly. David Blixt was commanding as Oberon, King of the Faeries.

 

The excellent results in this ‘Midsummer” production are very much due to a top-drawer, tightly knit ensemble rather than huge standout individual performances, and that is a credit to Blixt in casting and directing the multi-layered story with so many players and plot twists.

 

It should be said that this is a seasoned troupe of players with a terrific grasp of acting the Bard, and bringing the Elizabethan verse into a modern context that makes it wonderfully relevant and accessible to even someone whose closest brush with Shakespeare are the occasional send-ups on "The Simpsons."

 

 

 

Shakespeare like you've never seen... really!

Henry IV

Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan

 

Posted: July 20, 2015 at 11:00 a.m.

 

It’s no exaggeration to say you haven’t seen this Shakespeare play before.

 

Janice L Blixt, artistic director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, has combined Henry IV parts 1 and 2 into a single play, Henry IV, and put it up on the stage in a three-hour span. Epic in scale, the history takes the audience from the throne room of London to the battlefields of the North, with Scottish lords joining English ones in rebellion.

 

Blixt directs this adaptation with a cast of 19. It’s a cast from which much is demanded and more is given. Blixt knows how to double her cast and keep them coming back to fully populate Henry’s England. She also keeps the pace marching forward with actors filling the stage and finding humor amid the seriousness of the story.

 

In this adaptation, the emphasis is put on Prince Hal and his relationship with his father. Prince Hal, played by Shawn Pfautsch, is dissolute and given much to women and wine. While his father, played by David Turrentine, is heavy with the affairs of state and given to distemper and anger, young Hal is caught up in pranks with Sir John Falstaff (Alan Ball) and his companions.

Yet, when war catches up to the kingdom and young Hotspur (Milan Malisic) leads armies in revolt, Hal steps up to prove his worthiness to his father.

 

Turrentine is regal as the aging king and gives stature to the king’s tempers. This is no common man engaging in a rage. Turrentine carries Henry with a dignity that sets him apart from his lords and the few commoners that populate the play. He is always grave and worn with care. We see the greatest depth in his Henry during his death scene where he goes from berating his son to giving him his blessing and wishing peace for his reign.

 

Pfautsch brings great charisma to Hal. He’s a rapscallion who is as carefree as his father is laden. He imbues the young prince with humors that make him a stranger to his father, though there are visions in him of the king he will become. His opening scene, taking place in a large bed, establish him as a playboy given over to pranks and hedonism. Pfautsch easily handles both the roustabout and the more princely Hal, reconciling them in a way that is credible.

 

Malisic’s Hotspur has the temper of the king and the youth of the prince. He is a young lion who suffers no pretense or disagreement. He reveals this temper well in the scene following his audience with the king where he shows himself disobedient to the king’s will and determined to flaunt the king’s orders. Even his friend and kin, who is sympathetic to his rant, cannot calm him or distract him with talk of plans.

 

It is in the two Henry plays that Queen Elizabeth famously fell in love with Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight who leads Hal astray and is notorious in his tale-telling and lies. He disrespects everyone but still manages to entertain his comrades. In this version, Ball dons the fat suit and is Hal’s disreputable companion. Falstaff follows Hal to war and reveals himself a coward incapable of great deeds. Yet, Ball gives the audience reason to like Falstaff—not for any noble characteristics, but because he is honest with us about honor, greed and selfishness.

 

And for those who attend Shakespeare because they like the sword fighting, Henry IV won’t disappoint. This is a war play and the first act ends with a great battle that brings out the whole company for intensive sword fights that range from single duels to large-scale group battles. Fight Director David Blixt (who also plays Owain Glyndwr, Douglas and the Archbishop of York) choreographs an exciting battle that encompasses several fighting styles from great-sword to axe to sword and shield.

 

If there is a flaw in this production, it comes in the two plays together. After the huge battle, there is a resolution and intermission comes at a time that feels like an ending, in part because it is. The conflict is over, father and son are reconciled, enemies are slain and Falstaff is shown to again be ridiculous. There is no compelling reason for the play to continue and post-intermission feels like starting over. The story is repeating itself and the audience must once again reinvest itself in a story that feels resolved.

 

This is especially true for the main theme of the play—the relationship between father and son. The tension between them dissipates at the end of the first half, as Hal proves himself on the battlefield and gives his father reason to be proud of him. But then things pick up after intermission with Hal back in the tavern and his father once again disapproving. The strength of this play is in the first half, though the ending of the second half does draw things back into a sharp focus with the transformation of Hal from prince to king.

 

Anyone who has attended the Michigan Shakespeare Festival knows that it spares nothing in its production values to bring on the highest quality shows. The design team is as committed to storytelling as the artistic team and this is certainly true with Henry IV. Scenic Designer Jeromy Hopgood is able to take the audience from battlefield to throne-room to tavern with backdrops that fly in and furniture the cast rolls in before their scene. The furnishings are heavy and thick, speaking to the seriousness and weight of the play’s matters.

 

Lauren Montgomery is detailed in her costume design, particularly with the boots and the armor that combatants wear. Once again original music is provided by composer Kate Hopgood and she creates a soundtrack that is epic in scale and sets the mood for this brutal war story.

 

It isn’t often that Henry IV is performed—either part one or part two. This production is populated with fine storytellers who all work seamlessly together—from every foot soldier to each designer and tech to the leads—each person gives a fully committed performance that tells the story of Henry and Hal, and the kingdom that each bear responsibility for.

 

Run time 7:30 to 10:42, with one intermission

 

“Rivals” a hearty stew of comedy to be eaten with gusto

by Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan

 

Posted: July 21, 2015 at 9:00 a.m.

 

It’s nearly impossible to say too much good about Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals” at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. There are so many things in it that are delightful--individual performances, the accents, the elevated language, the malapropisms, the costumes, the set, the exaggerated movements, the asides, the sword fighting.

 

It’s an all-together satisfying afternoon at the theater. Traditionally, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival annually performs two Shakespeare plays and one classic. This year the classic is Sheridan’s “The Rivals,” written in 1775 and a favorite play of George Washington’s.

 

It is set in Bath, where lovers gather to woo and others gather to take the waters and cure their gout. Lydia Languish (Laurel Schroeder) is a young heiress who has no shortage of wooers. She has fallen in love with Ensign Beverly, who is really Captain Jack Absolute (Dan Wilson) in disguise. She is in love with the idea of marrying a poor soldier without her guardian’s permission. Her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop (Wendy Katz Hiller) forbids the match while she carries on a written liaison with Sir Lucius O’Trigger (David Blixt), under the name of Delia, whom O’Trigger thinks is Lydia, thanks to the machinations of the maid (Lydia Hiller). Meanwhile Jack’s friend Bob Acres (Milan Malisic) is also courting Lydia.

Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Alan Ball), then shows up with an arranged marriage for Jack—to Lydia. Throw in a mix of servants who all share their masters’ secrets and carry messages, and you have all the makings of this centuries-old comedy.

 

Director Robert Kauzlaric gives each character the room to be unique and interesting. He cut the play so that it flows smoothly and never lags. His blocking is a thing of beauty, one that adds to the comedy as players create stairs where none seem to exist, crosses create the traffic of Bath in the opening, and the final denouement presents a stage picture where all are shown off to their best advantage.

 

Dialect specialist Elise Kauzlaric deserves a special shout-out as she coached the actors in a number of different dialects and accents. Everyone had an accent and there was a distinct sound between the classes, city and country folk.

 

It’s hard to single out any actor in this production when all were played with such singularity and hilarity. These are actors at the top of their craft. Yet, it would be remiss not to mention many of the fine performances that went into making this comedy so enjoyable.

 

Ball has swagger as the father who expects his every whim to be obeyed and his quarrel with his son shows off just some of Ball’s comic range. Wilson is cool and collected as Capt. Jack, giving him a confidence that he’s going to be able to pull off all his plans even when they start to fall apart around him. He ends up playing straight man to the bigger characters around him.

 

Edmund Alyn Jones plays Faulkland, Jack’s friend who is wooing Julia (Annie Keris). He frets over her fidelity, despite all the evidence that she is true to him. Faulkland is one of those people who puts the worst possible interpretation on everything out of his own jealousies and Jones makes this a comic rather than tragic figure. His mourning is foppish as is his inability to be consoled with fact or reason. Keris balances him out perfectly with her steadfastness and by being the very picture of all that Faulkland knows he wants and worries he doesn’t have. Julia endures his bad behavior and even defends it.

 

Malisic plays up the difference between the old rich and the new in such a way that spins comic gold. His physicality is huge and he adopts affectations in an attempt to fit in among the wealthy. Everything about him is at odds with the other gentlemen, and he plays it up so that even to modern eyes the difference between class is obvious. He’s given a great assist by the costumer Melanie Schuessler when in the second act he comes out with blue hair and a tacky multi-colored outfit, but by then he’s already established that he is out of place and a comic figure for the audience and those in the play alike.

 

Blixt grounds O’Trigger with a gravitas that is in perfect contrast to Malisic’s outlandishness. Their scenes together work especially well as each one highlights the other’s personality. Blixt also doubles as the fight director and O’Trigger’s sword fight with Jack is skilled and filled with finesse.

 

Schroeder holds her own as the romance-addicted maiden who is more in love with love than with her lover. She is impish and impudent with her guardian, pouty with her friend and entranced with her lover until it comes time for them to quarrel. It is not entirely her fault that she is overshadowed by the bigger-than-life Mrs. Malaprop. Blame that instead on the costumer and Wendy Katz Hiller who fills the stage both with her 4-foot wide dress and her over-the-top behavior. Hiller owns the stage when she is on it and she charges through malaprop after malaprop without the slightest hesitation.

 

Lydia Hiller adds much to the role of Lucy, Lydia’s maid. She affects a simplicity with raised hands and open mouth that makes her seem quite daft and then drops it all in an instant when revealing how she schemes to make money from everyone. It’s a delicious contrast that adds spice to this already hearty stew of a comedy.

 

Schuessler’s costumes deserve their own curtain call. In particular, Mrs. Malaprop’s costume is tacky in the extreme, perfect for her character. The four-foot wide lemon yellow skirt is bedecked with swathes of orange, light blue and purple fabric. In contrast, the dresses of Lydia and Julia are beautiful and tasteful. Each character gets an outfit that is true to their character and evokes the period well.

 

“The Rivals” may not be the best known of the classic comedies, but in the hands of Kauzlaric and his team it is well-worth seeing. This comedy of manners tickles, woos and entertains its audiences.

 

Run time: 2 p.m. to 4:44, with one intermission.

 

2014 Season Reviews

Michigan Shakespeare Festival presents a 'Hamlet' you will not soon forget
Ann Holt for MLive
 
Kicking off the 20th season of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival is an intelligent, fresh and beautifully staged modern-dress version of "Hamlet," one of the world's greatest plays and Shakespeare's best-known tragedy.
When we go to the theater what we want to see is something unexpected, and director Janice L. Blixt, also the Artistic Director of the festival, surprises us with how she tells this ghost story, mystery and political thriller filled with madness, revenge, and murders.
On opening-night performance on Saturday, July 19, there was much laughter counterpointed by moments of absolute silence when the audience held its collective breath.
As the play begins we learn that Hamlet's beloved father, the King of Denmark has died, and his mother has quickly married, Claudius, his uncle, making him king. (The marriage was incestuous by Elizabethan standards.)
Betrayed by his mother and having lost his chance to rule the kingdom, Hamlet is now trapped in the castle, with his purpose in life gone.
In his melancholy state, Hamlet encounters the ghost of the dead king who reveals he was murdered by his own brother and encourages Hamlet to take revenge by killing Claudius. Desperately trying to uncover the truth, Hamlet wraps himself in a cloak of madness distrustful of those around him.
This is where Shawn Pfautsch's Hamlet comes alive – dominating and controlling the stage with his dark humor, emotional range, and physicality. He toys with those around him like a cat with a mouse. You do not dare take your eyes off him for a moment for fear of missing something important. This is a Hamlet you will not soon forget.
Alan Ball turns in a memorable, warm, and witty performance as Polonius, an adviser to the King. Although considered doddering, he is a loving father to both Ophelia and Laertes. (Ball also plays the Gravedigger in another amusing scene.)
Ophelia, portrayed by Lydia Hiller (a Winona Ryder look-alike), is the obedient daughter, whose life is defined by men. When Hamlet, who once pledged his love, cruelly scorns her and sends her away, she becomes another victim – death being her only option to escape a world where she no longer has a place.
David Turrentine is a strong Claudius, the great man in public, but unprincipled in his private actions.
As Gertrude, Janet Haley creates a shallow woman more interested in maintaining the status quo, revealing little emotionally until the scene where Hamlet shares his plans.
Edmund Alyn Jones (Rosencrantz) and Topher Payne (Guildenstern) play entertaining but bumbling school friends of Hamlet's who ultimately betray him by spying for Claudius.
Hamlet's only friend, who remains true to him to the end, is the steadfast Horatio (Brandon St. Clair Saunders).
The Michigan Shakespeare Festival continues to attract and keep a core of talented performers and design staff, which contributes to the constant refining of the ensemble work as evidenced by this outstanding production.
Inventive Set Designer Jeromy Hopgood makes a dramatic statement with soaring Gothic arches and Lighting Designer Diane Fairchild illuminates them with shafts of light on a stage filled with mist. The production is underscored with original atmospheric music and sound composed by Kate Hopgood.
Kathryn Wagner provides costumes in a palette of somber colors with touches of red for the royal family and flashes of jewel tones in the women's elegant modern-day dresses.
The exciting final duel that leaves the stage strewn with dead bodies is choreographed by Fight Director David Blixt
 
 
 
Michigan Shakespeare Festival finds the wit and humor in 'Hamlet'
By John Monaghan for the Detroit Free Press 
4 stars of 4 stars
 
To care or not to care?
That is the question behind any production of “Hamlet,” which finds the famed Prince of Denmark avenging the death of his father while going mad in the process. You have to be with him every step of the way, even at his ugliest.
I didn’t care much at first about Shawn Pfautsch’s Hamlet, featured in a new production at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival in Jackson. I found him to be a whiny prince, even as the ghost of his father confirmed what Hamlet has suspected all along: that his uncle killed his father in order to ascend the throne.
Fortunately, Pfautsch seemed to quickly grow comfortable in the role and gave Saturday’s opening-night audience a well-crafted performance that brought out all the tragedy and the often-ignored humor of Shakespeare’s signature work. The festival production, directed by Janice Blixt, relies on strong acting and sparse set decoration. Though Blixt sets the action in an ancient castle, the cast’s attire is at least 20th-Century modern. This is a royal family that’s apparently doomed to make the same mistakes over many centuries.
Hamlet’s plan to force his Uncle Claudius (David Turrentine) into a confession involves a small band of actors who will stage a murder drama whose story reflects the real murder Claudius committed. During this scene, the designers have some fun with color, outfitting the freewheeling actors in the only hues that break from the blacks and grays that define the show’s overall look.
As for all the psychology that’s central to “Hamlet,” Blixt and company handle it well. They walk the fine line between Shakespeare and Freud that most modern companies are all too eager to cross. Obviously upset with his Uncle Claudius, Hamlet saves some of his scorn for his mother, Gertrude (Janet Haley), who married Claudius quickly after the king’s death. The showdown scene between Hamlet and Gertrude is one of the play’s most charged and subtly reveals the complex feelings the son has for his mother.
Other familiar scenes come off equally well. The visit by Hamlet’s dead father is effectively rendered with silhouettes and fog effects. When Pfaustch launches into his iconic “To be or not to be?” speech, its meaning is enhanced by hand gestures. And if you’re in the audience for this production and pondering when to come aboard Team Hamlet, you’ll likely be won over when the prince loses his shoes, which is around the time he begins to lose his marbles. Blixt’s idea to have Hamlet go barefoot while wearing a fancy tailored suit is clever and effective.
The supporting roles are well-played by actors who have come to the festival by various routes. Some, like Pfautsch, have Chicago experience. Others, like Topher Alan Payne and Edmund Alyn Jones, who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are graduates of Wayne State University’s Hilberry program. Some of Hamlet’s best lines are reserved for these two characters, former school chums who have been enlisted to spy on the moody prince. It’s fun to watch him talk rings around them.
As always, the success of the show depends on the strength of the lead, and Pfautsch ultimately doesn’t disappoint. He proves that tragedy is not defined solely by the body count. It’s also eccentricity and wit that keep audiences coming back to watch Shakespeare’s great Dane fall once more.
 
 
 
MSF Offers New Take on Hamlet
Review by Holly Cogan, Brooklyn Exponent special writer
 
It is a daunting task for a small town newspaper reporter to review what could be the world's most famous play in the English language performed by professional and well-schooled actors. 
 
We have seen the Actors' Equity Association members in the Michigan Shakespeare Festival company of players in other years and they never fail to impress. Excellence draws excellence and other other members of the company this summer rise to a higher level just by being in their presence. 
 
Plays are performed in a repertory fashion with three shows offered at various times from now through Aug. 17. "Hamlet" began July 17 with the schedule ending with that play on Aug. 17. The opening of "The Importance Of Being Earnest" will be Saturday, July 26, at 7:30 p.m. at the Potter Center on the campus of Jackson College. "Cymbeline" follows Sunday, July 27, at 2 p.m. All performances are in the Baughman Theatre. 
 
This version of "Hamlet" is not the full play. Three hours is long enough for a performance, director Janice L. Blixt decided. That meant making cuts, and focusing on Hamlet himself. 
 
"...by the time he arrives home after being told of his father's death, his entire life's purpose (is) stolen from him," reasons Blixt in deciding to tell his story. The familiar lines are there, but "brevity is the soul of wit" and she managed to capture both. 
 
This may be a more humorous "Hamlet" than you remember. The audience on preview night appreciated places where William Shakespeare wrote in comedic scenes and where Shawn Pfautsch in the title role played them to the hilt. His feigned madness, designed to irritate his elders who had not shown proper respect for his murdered father, was boyishly gleeful at times and soberly quiet at others. He spoke robotically at one point and clapped with his feet in another, doing whatever he could think of to bring disquiet to the usurper of his father's throne - his uncle Claudius - and his mother, Gertrude. The other adult in the situation was the father of Ophelia, Hamlet's love, who advised his daughter to keep her distance from Hamlet. He tried very hard to be patient as he carried out the king's orders but was irritated as any current-day father would be. Alan Ball, one of the equity actors, could have been a little stronger in expressing those emotions and in reacting to Hamlet's outrageous behavior, but he is, after all, a nice guy and a diplomat. He is also a heck of a gravedigger. 
 
David Turrentine in the role of Claudius was blustery, obnoxious, greedy, ambitious and wore all those other unworthy characteristics we associate with him. He also carried off the unsuccessful attempt at asking God's forgiveness with sincerity, acknowledging that his prayers kept bouncing back. 
 
As always, Janet Haley owned the stage when (she) was on it. She is a striking woman, and meant for major roles and not bit parts. 
 
The other female lead, Lydia Hiller, playing Ophelia, caught our eye this time, though. In actions and expressions she embodied a latent rebellion even when obeying her brother and father. She did what she had to do, albeit not willingly, and her slip into madness was impressive. 
 
Brandon St. Clair Saunders got a plum role in Horatio, the only true friend of Hamlet. He brought a steadiness to the play which can be a bit frenetic. 
 
Sam Hubbard as Laertes died well, but then, in true Shakespearian fashion, they all died well. 
 
 
 
'Hamlet' opens Shakespeare Festival
By Robert Delaney for the New Monitor
 
Director Janice L. Blixt gives us a youthful modern-dress "Hamlet" as the first play of this year's Michigan Shakespeare Festival in Jackson.
Shawn Plautsch is the fresh-faced Danish prince in this fine production at the Baughman Theatre in Jackson College's Potter Center.
His performance is given excellent support by David Turrentine as Claudius, Janet Haley as Gertrude, Lydia Hiller as Ophelia and Alan Ball doubling as both Polonius and the Gravedigger.
Besides Ball, patrons of Wayne State's Hilberry Theatre will also recognize two other Hilberry alums, Edmund Alyn Jones as Rosencrantz and Topher Payne as Guildenstern.
It's a good production, but I can't say it makes my list of all-time favorites. I got there a half-hour early last Saturday night in order to hear Blixt's pre-curtain "Bard talk." Blixt's combination of knowledge and insight is always a joy to hear, and I really believe the festival ought to tape them, and set up a video screen to play them in the lobby before those performances when she doesn't give them.
This weekend will see the official openings of the other two plays being offered this year - Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" at 7:30 p.m., Saturday; and Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" at 2 p.m. on Sunday. I recommend allowing at least two hours to get to the Jackson College campus from most metro area starting points to allow for traffic tie-ups. I was more than a little disappointed that MapQuest failed to warn me that the exit for M-127 South off I-94 was closed for repairs. The situation was easily remedied by staying on the freeway for one more exit, then doubling back, but I was glad I wasn't pressed for time.
 
 
 
Strong choices dominate 'Hamlet'
By Bridgette M. Redman
 
Whether they are aware of it or not, everyone knows "Hamlet." It is so much a part of our lexicon that people grow up hearing its words and phrases and memorize them even when ignorant of their origins.
It is because it is so well known and so enmeshed in our culture that it becomes critical in this play – even more so than in most others – that actors and directors make strong choices. These choices differentiate each production and keep it from being a bunch of famous quotes strung together.
The Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 20th anniversary production of "Hamlet" is bold in its choices. Artistic director Janice Blixt moves the famous Dane and his family's court into the modern era, and each actor has clear intentions and motivations in this most famous of Shakespearean tragedies. It is in the modern setting where Hamlet must determine how to avenge his father's death, a death he learns was murder committed by his uncle who then married his mother.
It all starts and ends with the Dane himself, the title character who is played by Shawn Pfautsch. Pfautsch is an emotional prince, ever caught up in one mood or the next, whether it is sorrow, anger, feigned madness or grief. There are few moments in which Pfautsch lets Hamlet have quiet or simpleness. He is a man caught up in complex emotions, and he doesn't hesitate to express them.
Where he is most effective is in his delivery of those all-too familiar lines. He makes each of the speeches his own, and he makes them seem comfortable tripping off the tongue of a man from this century. They are all internally consistent, part of the personality that Pfautsch creates for Hamlet.
But neither is the play simply a collection of speeches. This production of Hamlet is filled with characters who are intense in what they want and how they go about getting it. Even those characters who are caught up in events beyond their ability to affect are still committed to the attempt.
David Turrentine's Claudius and Janet Haley's Gertrude are a subdued couple, first as royals who are consolidating power and then as guilty spouses whose feelings toward the Danish prince split them in purpose. While together they are the controlled monarchs of a realm not long out of mourning, apart they show passion that arises out of fear – fear of being found out and fear for a son's life.
Alan Ball's choice for Polonius is an unusual one, as he is not the typical comic relief or clown of the play. Rather, he is a councilor who is earnest in his desire to serve a stable state. He loves his children and looks after their welfare in a way that does not seem at all absurd or over-bearing. His advice sounds wise coming from Ball's lips, and he brings the king and queen intelligence that is true if not the cause of Hamlet's madness like he thinks.
Edmund Alyn Jones as Rosencrantz and Topher Payne as Guildenstern are a doomed twosome who are nonetheless authentic in their desire to do service to both their monarchs and their school friend. That they cannot ultimately serve both is no fault of their own nor due to a lack of desire. With Pfautsch, the three establish well that they were once beloved friends, and we see that fall apart as the Wittenburg duo are forced to choose their loyalties.
Brandon St. Clair Saunders, whose voice resonates as Horatio, creates no such conflict in his character's loyalties. Horatio is first and foremost companion to Hamlet, and the two are trusted, devoted friends. Their closing scene is heartbreaking, and Saunders keenly shows that while Horatio may survive the play's bloody ending, he does not escape the tragedy.
Sam Hubbard is the impulsive Laertes, whose disposition is almost always a mirror opposite to Hamlet's. Like Hamlet, he has a father to avenge, a father who was murdered and for whom he wants justice. Even though he plots with Claudius, Laertes remains likeable, in part because Hubbard makes clear that his choices are motivated by honor, and that his actions are coming from the same place as the play's hero, Hamlet.
The Ophelia in this production is a serious, deep one who keenly feels the bonds that prevent her from making her own choices, whether it be with Hamlet, her father or the king and queen of Denmark. Lydia Hiller creates an Ophelia who is boxed in, for she has as much affection for her father as she does for Hamlet, and is torn between the two of them. The scenes between Pfautsch and Hiller are cold, as if they know they are predestined to be separated. There is little of affection and much of challenge and suppressed passion.
Helping to create each moment in this tragedy is Kate Hopgood's original music composition and sound design. It plays as a complex sound track that underlines each shift in mood and important choice.
The final fight scene, designed by fight director David Blixt, is a complex and intense one. Laertes and Hamlet are two well-matched fighters, and they are fierce and quick in their battle.
Jeromy Hopgood's set consists of clean, strong columns, with Diane Fairchild's design throwing lights from behind the column and into the fog that permeates the set.
With a constant attention to stage pictures, Janice Blixt offers a visually stunning "Hamlet" that is heavy in contrasts. Blixt's "Hamlet" works because of all the strong choices that are made. This isn't a carbon copy of someone else's "Hamlet." This is a "Hamlet" mutually created by director, technical artists and actors to create something different that still stays true to the soul of the original work.
 
 
 
Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 'The Importance of Being Earnest' is another jewel
by Ann Holt for MLive
 
The Michigan Shakespeare Festival has never used the Baughman Theatre's beautiful red grand drape curtain before.
However, it is absolutely appropriate for Artistic Director Janice L. Blixt's traditional staging of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," the second production of its 20th season.
This elegant Victorian confection, set in 1895 London, is a light-hearted comical farce. Wilde referred to his best known and last work as "a trivial play about trivial things," although many will find meaning in the satire of the social mores of his day and perhaps ours as well.
"Earnest" has been described as the second-most known and quoted play in English after "Hamlet," making it a perfect addition to this season.
Friends "Earnest" Worthing, played by Joe Lehman, and Algernon Moncrief (David Blixt) are well-off young men who have both devised clever ways to avoid social obligations.
Earnest is in love with Algernon's cousin Gwendolyn (Rachel Hull). In order to marry her, he must pass muster with her domineering mother, Lady Bracknell (David Turrentine), by proving himself both economically and socially worthy.
Algernon finds a cigarette lighter inscribed "To Uncle Jack from Cecily" (Lydia Hiller) and becomes curious.
Earnest explains that she is his ward and admits his name is actually John. Earnest is the name he has given his imaginary brother, who he claims lives in the city, allowing him the freedom to be away from his country home whenever he pleases.
Surprisingly it turns out that Algernon has an imaginary friend, too. "Bunbury" lives in the country and is often ill. So, Algernon decides to leave the city and go bunburying in the country so he can drop in when Jack is away and meet the mysterious Cecily.
Things then get complicated, but you won't have any trouble following the further confusions, misunderstandings, and mistaken identities, including those concerning the proper Miss Prism (Wendy Katz Hiller), the modest Rev. Chasuble (Alan Ball), and a handbag.
The servants (Brandon St. Clair Saunders and Rick Eva) sometimes silently, sometimes not, comment on and underscore the nonsense they must endure.
Director Blixt, understanding that Wilde's words are important, brought in Dialect Specialist Elise Kauzlaric, who did an excellent job coaching the cast with their British accents. But energy and pacing are crucial as well and Blixt keeps things moving swiftly along. One guesses the actors are having as much fun as the audience.
This is another strong ensemble achievement for the company.
In "Hamlet" he may play Claudius, the King, but in "Earnest" David Turrentine is the indomitable Lady Bracknell, a role often played by a man.
Turrentine is marvelous in the role without having to resort to being campy for laughs. After all, he has some of the best lines in the play.
Lehman and David Blixt are delightful sparring partners, verbally and physically. The glee with which Blixt annoys Jack in the muffin scene, and Jack's attempts to respond reasonably are very silly.
Lydia Hiller's Cecily bubbles and flits in the most charming and careless manner. It's hard to believe this is the same actress who embodies the tragic Ophelia in "Hamlet." The sophisticated and wiser Gwendolyn, played with authority by Rachel Hull declares they will be sisters until it appears that they might in fact be rivals. Then the sparks fly.
Kudos to Scenic Designer Jeromy Hopgood, who year after year solves complicated problems creating sets for three productions that have to live in the same space. He is nothing short of a magician.
For "Earnest," he built a framework that works for all three locations, can be quickly altered and further defined by how the space is furnished.
Suzanne Young's costumes are exquisite. Everyone on stage looks gorgeous in beautifully detailed Victorian dress.
Kate Hopgood provides the lightest touch with her music and sound design. Diane Fairchild lights the stage but occasional shadows of the actors appearing on the sides of the theatre are a bit distracting.
 
 
 
Earnest actors keep the farce authentic
By Bridgette M. Redman for Encore Michigan
 
"There are no small roles, only small actors."
Never is this more apparent than in the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's "The Importance of Being Earnest" in which the two butlers, played by Rick Eva and Brandon St. Clair Saunders, have antics that rival the leads in comic effect.
Saunders anticipates every household need, and Eva mimics his masters with all of their silly demands. They're funny, amusing and nearly steal every scene they're in.
Nor is that a light task when the others they share the stage with shine equally brightly. It is a cast that glitters in its gaiety in a fashion that would make Oscar Wilde proud.
Wilde's comedy has enjoyed enduring popularity as a silly story about two society men who each have secret lives to escape the social conventions and obligations of town and country. Jack Worthing (played by Joe Lehman) and Algernon Moncrieff (played by David Blixt) each escape their usual homes by assuming false personalities under which they fall in love with two different women. They both must overcome society's roadblocks and the fickle nature of their own lovers to make it to the altar and the wedded state.
Directed by Janice Blixt, "The Importance of Being Earnest" is played as written, with attention to all the whimsy that Wilde embedded in this 19th Century script. It is farce, and Janice Blixt shows a healthy respect for Wilde and the script by letting it play exactly as written and trusting that the audience doesn't have to be spoon fed its charm or wit.
Even David Turrentine's Lady Bracknell is not forced into the over-the-top cross-dressing exaggeration. Rather, the pure humor of a man playing this over-bearing society woman who is an arbiter of all that is proper is allowed to simply happen. Turrentine shines because he plays the role as a woman, not as a man playing a woman. There is no falsetto or overly mincing movement. Rather, Turrentine's Lady Bracknell is a strong woman who is overbearing and makes the men in her life cower in fear.
David Blixt and Lehman are charming as the two gentlemen who are madly in love despite a fair amount of cynicism over their expected roles in life. Both embrace the absurdities of their roles and the situations the characters find themselves in. David Blixt is particularly delightful in the scene where Lydia Hiller's Cecily Cardew informs him that they got engaged months before they met.
Hiller's Cecily is silly and sweet, with an energy that is completely different from the Ophelia Hiller played in "Hamlet" earlier in the day. Cecily is an airhead who is all sentiment and no sense. She flits. She flitters. Hiller makes the most of her airiness while never making her a clown or making a mockery of the character. Like all the actors in this production, she stays authentic.
Just as David Blixt and Lehman play off each other with great chemistry, so too do Hiller and Rachel Hull in the role of Gwendolyn Fairfax have a great stage relationship whether the sparks are flying between them or they're declaring love for each other.
It is also fun to watch mother-daughter pair as Wendy Katz Hiller plays governess Miss Prism to her daughter's Cecily.
Rounding out the cast is Alan Ball, who is the doddering country minister who is an intellectual most talented at putting his male parishioners to sleep and attracting the attentions of such single women as Miss Prism.
Each actor in this ensemble is committed to letting the script shine for all it is worth. They make choices that support the script and keep the humor at a quick pace. They also adeptly handle the accents while keeping the language clear and easy to understand. For this, they had assistance from dialect specialist Elise Kauzlaric.
Adding to the traditional presentation of the play are Suzanne Young's gorgeous period costumes. She even makes Turrentine look natural in a full Victorian gown. She also clearly worked in tandem and communicated well with scenic designer Jeromy Hopgood, for the set and costumes were of similar colors and hues. In a rare move for the Shakespeare Festival, the play opens and the scenes change with the grand curtain down and Diane Fairchild's purple lights shining upon it. Behind the curtain are the changes that transform the stage from Algernon's townhouse to Jack's garden and then to Jack's parlor.
Under Janice Blixt's light hand, this production is a playful one that speaks to the absurdity and triviality of proper life. The comedy shines most where it is most restrained and becomes a dalliance with pure entertainment and laughter.
 
 
A magical 'Cymbeline' in Kauzlaric's hands
By Bridgette M. Redman
 
Sometimes you walk out of a theater and you know you've experienced something special. Something you're not likely to ever experience again.
On Sunday, I walked out of the Jackson Community College's Potter Center where the Michigan Shakespeare Festival was presenting "Cymbeline," with the realization that I may never again see this play done so well.
For starters, "Cymbeline" isn't done very often. It has a convoluted plot and lacks some of the poetry of Shakespeare's other works. It is neither comedy nor tragedy, and is one of his longer plays.
But director Robert Kauzlaric takes a strong hand to the script and molds it into a story that is compelling and fascinating. Then he works with a design team and a group of actors that couldn't be more committed to the group storytelling.
The production values are high, and what Jeromy Hopgood does with scrims and cloths and Diane Fairchild does with lighting is nothing short of amazing. Add to that the original music and sound design by Kate Hopgood that acts as a constant sound track, and the audience is transported out of this world into one of another time, place and setting. Al Renee Amidei's costumes along with Jeromy Hopgood's ever-moving set pieces make it possible for the play to move from Rome to England to Wales without ever losing the audience or leaving them behind.
It truly is teamwork amongst the production crew that makes things work. It isn't the costumes alone, the lighting alone, or the set pieces alone. All of them combine to tell the story, and it is their seamless integration as if done with one hand that makes the show magical.
The play opens with one of those rousing Shakespearean pictures with a large ensemble of people on stage, all moving in perfectly coordinated steps around a spotlighted chest. From the chest come costumes and masks in a choreographed dance. Then Joe Lehman mounts the box as chorus, narrator and Pisanio, servant to Posthumus to give the "once upon a time" in true Puck-like fashion.
Pisanio lets us know what has come before – that Imogen has eloped with Posthumus, an orphan raised in the court, and that King Cymbeline has banished Posthumus and imprisoned Imogen for this act. The King's two sons were kidnapped as babies, leaving Imogen as heir. The Queen (who has no other name) is an evil stepmother who wants her doltish son Cloten (by a previous marriage) to take the throne. Cloten and the Queen want Imogen to marry him to secure his right to the throne.
Lehman gives Pisanio a sprightliness that draws the audience in. He makes clear his loyalties, and we see in Pisanio one of the few characters who are constantly loyal and honorable, never being gulled by what seems to be, when what seems to be contradicts what he knows to be true. Lehman makes Pisanio a constant – that when things get confusing, it is always his opinion and view that can be trusted. As the story swirls around from place to place and plot to plot, Lehman ensures that things are understood and clear. He then returns as the Puck/narrator at the end of the play to let us know the moral, and give us Shakespeare's version of a "happily ever after."
Janet Haley is delicious as the evil stepmother and queen. She makes Disney's Maleficent seem cuddly and trustworthy. Haley moves in a sinister fashion, her hand growing in fearsomeness when she spreads her fingers and lays claim with it to the king, the throne, the world around her.
Rachel Hull's Imogen is powerful and intelligent. Hull gives the character a backbone that makes her one of Shakespeare's stronger women. She is faithful and can see through the schemes of others, even when they touch her dearly. The scene with her and David Blixt's Iachimo especially lets her shine. He tries to seduce her to win a bet with the banished Posthumus that he can compromise her honor. Hull lets her distress show at his news, and both build suspense so the audience is left to wonder whether she will give in.
Blixt creates an Iachimo that is casually evil. Unlike the Queen who is committed to her evil acts, Iachimo doesn't see himself as evil, merely as worldly. He does horrible harm for his own amusement, and does not think through what the consequences will be. It is this carelessness that sets up one of the more powerful moments at the end of the play, as Blixt leaves open the question of whether he is steeped in evil or whether it is possible for him to be redeemed.
The third bad guy of the play is Shawn Pfautsch's Cloten. Pfautsch creates a Cloten that the audience loves to hate. He is self-absorbed, arrogant, needy and vicious. He lacks all the virtues that Pfautsch gives Hamlet when he plays that role in the Festival's other production. Because of this, he becomes the clown of "Cymbeline."
David Turrentine plays the title role of the play, though he is often thrust into the background by those who take action around him. He is more acted upon than acting, influenced by his queen and ruled by his temper. He is the receiver of news rather than the maker of it.
Central to the play is the love story between Imogen and Posthumus. Hull and Edmund Alyn Jones could step right out of any fairy tale of a princess and a pauper. Their love for each other is deep, and the seeming betrayals leave them both devastated.
Shakespeare frequently shows in his plays that he believed it was birth – not upbringing – that makes a person noble. That blood is stronger than relations of choice, that nature trumps nurture. This we see in Sam Hubbard's Guiderius and Eric Eilersen's Arviragrus who are princely in a way that Cloten is not, even though they have been raised in a cave by Alan Ball's Belarius.
Blixt doubles as Iachimo and fight director in this production. Together, Kauzlaric and Blixt create scenes of war that are elegant, exciting and fit in perfectly with the mood and theme of the production.
While "Cymbeline" is often considered one of the Bard's lesser plays, this production is a pure Shakespeare experience. From costumes, to speeches, to movement, to stage fighting, to flawed heroes, to irredeemably evil villains, it has everything you expect from a Shakespeare play – and you leave wondering why it isn't done more often.
The answer might be because it can rarely be done quite so well.
 
 
A Remarkable Work of Art
By Ron Baumanis for Mostly Musical Theatre
 
I just got home from this afternoon’s performance of Hamlet, in repertoire at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. While I don’t usually review non-musicals, I have to give two shout outs…
First, this is an excellent production under the guidance and direction of MSF Artistic Director Janice Blixt. Set in modern era clothing, it resounds as powerfully as it most likely did 420 years ago. Her direction is swift, perfectly focused, and edits are judicial and appropriate. Its a tight, gorgeous production, with beautiful lighting and scenic design, and a small, expertly crafted acting ensemble.
Second, Chicago-area actor Shawn Pfautsch turns in an amazing performance as the Dane…at first reserved and almost lifeless, he quickly takes on the role with an energy and performance force that you have to see. By Act two, he’s barefoot and galavanting around the stage faking his mental deterioration; while instantly being able to transform to composed, plotting, and revengeful. By Act V, he’s a force to behold. Combine his natural abilities with Blixt’s sure directorial hand, and this is a fine, fine Hamlet indeed.
I’m looking forward to the Festival’s other two offerings this summer — The Importance of Being Earnest, and the little-performed Cymbeline — but Hamlet is clearly this season’s centerpiece — and its a remarkable work of art.
 
 
 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s brilliant 'Hamlet' is remarkably relevant

Examiner

 

Rating: 5 STARS

 

Today marks the official close of the 20th Anniversary of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, and if the penultimate performance of “Hamlet” was any indication of the quality of the state-sanctioned enterprise, we can all be proud. The critically acclaimed festival, which for the last 10 years has appeared (indoors!) at the Potter Center in the Baughman Theatre on the campus of Jackson Community College, certainly holds its own in the world of Shakespeare-focused events.

 

This production of “Hamlet,” directed by the festival’s Artistic Director, Janice Blixt, is vibrant, passionate, at times hilarious and poignantly relevant. She immediately establishes an atmosphere in this production that becomes its own character – one embodied by purposeful sound design (Kate Hopgood), scenic (Jeromy Hopgood) and lighting (Diane Fairchild). Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, and we glimpse it lurking in the castle’s foggy battlements and hear it grumbling and gnashing its teeth in the dark and drafty halls. This production has been trimmed and tucked to fit a more conventional running time – but we doubt that anyone missed the absence of young Fortinbras, especially since Hamlet still delivers the lovely monologue (Act 4, Scene 4) to philosophically upbraid his own inaction in avenging the King’s murder.

 

The company is brilliant and the actors complement their contemporary costumes (Kathryn Wagner) with gestures and mannerisms (Guildenstern’s “mind blown” meme) that today’s audiences recognize as quickly as Elizabethans would have recognized crossed fingers as a gesture to ward off evil. Nothing is forced or cheesy. Rather, it serves to remind us that the emotions and situations Shakespeare’s characters deal with are precisely the ones we struggle with today.

 

This is as good a production of “Hamlet” as we’ve seen, and we’ve seen a few. Here are a few additonal highlights that come to mind after soaking in this rich and thoroughly enjoyable production.

 

 

Shawn Pfautsch as Hamlet, Alan Ball as Polonius

 

Shawn Pfautsch kicks tail as the Prince of Denmark – eschewing the quiet, brooding, introspective approach for one that is big and vibrant – filling every inch of the theatre with a manic, terrifying energy. He is a young man caught in the Twilight Zone episode where he is the only one who sees the monster that will bring their certain destruction. He’s not mad – he’s just surrounded by people who have bought into the politically-endorsed lie.

 

David Turrentine's Claudius is convincingly played less as a king and more as a ruthless corporate tycoon who has rubbed out his brother in a power move to get the goods and the girl. Rick Eva, as the King’s Guard, Osrick, creates an imposing and ubiquitous presence that serves to remind the audience, and Hamlet himself, that he is never beyond the reach of the odious Claudius.

 

Alan Ball has all the fun in this production – he gets to play the self-important Polonius as an officious politico whose meddling has tragic results, and is then bumped off in time to come back in the comic-relief scene as the wily Gravedigger. Good stuff.

 

Two other Hilberry alumni – Edmund Alyn Jones and Topher Payne – appear as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Although King Claudius never takes time to learn which is which, the actors manage to bring specific, distinguishing characteristics to characters that, in other productions, are nothing more than literary, expositional devices.

 

The sword fight between Laertes (Sam Hubbard) and Hamlet at the end of the play – devised by Fight Director David Blixt – is perhaps the best staged duel we have ever seen. By best, we mean violent, authentic and so frightening that we closed our eyes more than once – certain that someone was going to lose a valuable appendage.

 

Our congratulations to the Michigan Shakespeare Festival company. We look forward to seeing what next summer brings and recommend checking out the festival’s website or friending them on Facebook to stay in the loop.

 

2013 Season Reviews

Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 'Twelfth Night' is a delightful surprise

         by Ann Holt for MLive

 

 

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Twelfth Night,” or “What You Will,” is a beautiful, funny and absolutely delightful surprise.

 

With a strong cast and creative flourishes, Artistic Director Janice L. Blixt’s production, set in a lovely Jane Austen world, is sure to please theater-goers. This is the perfect production for reluctant or first-time festival attendees.

 

The play begins in the aftermath of a storm that has left Viola shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria and mourning the loss of her twin brother Sebastian. Hoping to serve Duke Orsino, the country’s ruler, her only recourse is to dress as a man so she can become a page in a bachelor’s household. Not unexpectedly she falls in love with him.  Orsino, on the other hand, is attempting to court the Countess Olivia, who has pledged to mourn her brother for seven years. When Orsino sends the new young page to Olivia to press his suit, Olivia falls in love with Viola/Cesario instead. Complicating matters is Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio. Her gentlewoman, Maria, tricks him into thinking Olivia is secretly in love with him.

 

The tomfoolery generated by these confusions results in some very funny physical comedy. The director and cast have either found or made moments of exquisite nonsense.

Everyone in this production of “Twelfth Night” knows how to speak fluent Shakespeare, making it understandable and sharing the jokes with the audience.

 

Melanie Keller (Viola/Cesario) is charming as the young woman attempting to pass as a young man but desperately in love with her master. Not afraid of physical comedy, her fencing scene is laugh out loud funny as are her scenes with David Blixt (Orsino), who is confused by his attraction to the page. (Blixt is also the Fight Director.) Watching Janet Haley (Olivia) go from a dour and unhappy woman to one giddy and infatuated with love will make you smile. Imagine her confusion when Wesley Scott (Sebastian) shows up.

 

One of the funniest and best known scenes belongs to Paul Riopelle (Malvolio) and he makes the most of it. Discovering a letter, supposedly from his mistress Olivia, he struggles to understand the odd favors she asks of him. John Byrnes (Sir Toby), Caleb Probst (Sir Andrew), and Brandon St. Clair Saunders (Fabian) are perfect foils as they hide and observe the pompous Malvolio make a fool of himself.

 

In an excellent ensemble cast, Alan Ball (Feste) stands out. His portrayal goes beyond that of a fool. Whether he is juggling, singing, dancing, or dispensing a fool’s wisdom, his character holds this world together.

 

The set design by Jeromy Hopgood is breathtaking. With Diane Fairchild’s lighting design, what starts as gauzy, sheer white panels magically becomes a beautifully romantic world full of changing colors and twinkling lights. The set changes in a variety of inventive ways throughout the production.

 

Sound design by Kate Hopgood sets the mood with breaking waves and birds singing. She has also created six original songs with lyrics taken from Shakespeare. The final number strikes the perfect ending to this enchanted production.

 

Melanie Schuessler’s Regency-like costumes are some of the most romantic and lovely seen on the Michigan Shakespeare Festival stage.

 

Designated Michigan’s Official Shakespeare Festival in 2003 by the Governor and State Legislature, Jackson is home to a true cultural gem.

 

With Dame Judi Dench and Stacy Keach, both acclaimed actors in their own right, willing to be Festival Champions, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival continues to grow its national reputation.

 

The production is approximately 3 hours long including a 15-minute intermission.

Be sure to bring a jacket or sweater since it can be chilly in the Baughman Theatre.

 

 

 

 

MSF delivers a 'Night' to remember

By John Quinn for EncoreMichigan

 

 

This critic has enjoyed an embarrassment of Shakespearean riches this weekend. I have seen an adaptation of The Bard's first, flawed tragedy, followed last night by the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's elegant romp through one of his best comedies, his last for many years. "Twelfth Night" is a frothy, mid-summer night's dream, a show so disarming that the playwright invites you to make of it "What You Will."

 

Remember the giddy emotions surrounding the turn of the 21th century? One imagines those hard-partying Elizabethans were in the same mood at the turn of the 17th. For Shakespeare, the party ended early; in 1601, his patron, the Earl of Southampton, was imprisoned and nothing seemed funny anymore. But this play was already finished; its first performance on record was Jan. 6, 1602, the "twelfth night" after Christmas and the traditional end of a rollicking holiday season.

 

Rick Eva as the Captain and Melanie Keller as Viola

 

"Twelfth Night" is a rollicking play. Shakespeare was at the top of his game, master of the language and wise commentator on the human condition. This work contains a traditional plot, about romance among the upper class, and a very rich subplot played out by those commonly referred in scripts as "clowns."

 

The romance is driven by one of Shakespeare's favorite devises, mistaken identity. The subplot revolves around a conspiracy to hoist an overly proud fussbudget on his own petard. MSF artistic director Janice L. Blixt, the show's director, has worked a wonder; in mining the text, she unearthed comic gems otherwise buried in the romantic scenes. The result is an effervescent, laugh-filled delight.

 

Two twins, Sebastian (Wesley Scott) and Viola (Melanie Keller), are shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Separated, each fears the other has drowned. Viola, a woman alone in a man's world, seeks protection by disguising herself as a man and seeking employment in the bachelor household of Orsino, Duke of Illyria (David Blixt). "Cesario" quickly gains favor with the Duke, who sends "him" to a widowed countess, Olivia (Janet Haley). Orsino is in love, and hopes his servant can coax Olivia out of her self-imposed seven years of mourning. The catch? The disguised Viola has fallen for Orsino and Olivia falls for "Cesario" at first sight. The unlikely triangle becomes a wrecked tangle when Sebastian appears, and the twins become, "One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons."

 

Meanwhile, a couple of ne'er-do-wells are sponging off the Countess' largess. They are her drunken sot of an uncle, Sir Toby Belch (John Byrnes) and his cowardly crony, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Caleb Probst), who hopes to win the fair Olivia for himself. Their rude behavior arouses the ire of Olivia's puritanical steward, Malvolio (Paul Riopelle), a man as bad-tempered as his name implies. Urged on by Maria, Olivia's lady-in-waiting (Amy Montgomery), the revelers conspire with festive fool Feste (Alan Ball), and fool-in-training Fabian (Brandon St. Clair Saunders) to trick Malvolio into believing the countess is in love with HIM. The tighter the twists, the happier the ending; all is sorted out and everybody lives happily ever after – well, maybe not Malvolio.

 

The various designers have given Janice L. Blixt a beautiful canvas upon which to paint Shakespeare's story. Much of the fun rests in the fact that "Twelfth Night" is set in "once upon a time"; the designers designate no particular place or time. Olivia uses a ballpoint and dollar store notebook; Feste is equipped with a portable karaoke machine. Melanie Schuessler's costumes are a passing nod to Regency, but are in playful colors and tailoring. Jeromy Hopgood's scenic design defines a dream-like space; gauzy, flowing curtains that Diane Fairchild's colorful, pastel lighting plays over. But the outstanding technical achievement is the incorporation of original songs by Kate Hopgood, festival composer, using lyrics adapted from various Shakespearean works. They are absolutely beautiful, the more so that the thoroughly modern adaptations so well reflect the old themes.

 

That's just the back drop; in this show, the players are the thing. "Twelfth Night" is notable for a tremendously talented ensemble, which has performed a simple, yet marvelous trick. By simply letting Shakespeare speak through them, letting his words pour over an audience like summer honey, every line and character is as enchanting as they were 400 years ago. The playwright's legacy is secured by those who perform him so well.

Some of the most beautiful lines in Shakespeare's works are given to Viola in "Twelfth Night." Melanie Keller delivers each with sincerity and passion, but shows she has the chops for broad comedy. In this production, it's Viola, not Orsino, who speaks the opening lines of Act I and Keller sets the bar high for the performances that follow.

 

It's easy to see why John Byrnes and Caleb Probst are instant audience favorites. Their intensely physical performances are a show in and of themselves. But if you must "send in the clowns," let it be Alan Ball. He sings, he dances, he juggles – but even deep in the tomfoolery, he brings subtle dignity to a character dear to Shakespeare's heart, the Wise Fool.

 

If there is a moral found in "Twelfth Night," it may be "carpe diem" – "seize the day." Whether the magic of love or the satisfaction in serving up just desserts, life's pleasures are as fleeting as good weather in Michigan and we must enjoy them while we may. MSF gifts us with one more pleasure to enjoy.

 

 

 

 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 'King John' proves tough to tackle

By Ann Holt for MLive

 

 

“The Life and Death of King John” is one of Shakespeare’s neglected historical plays.

John Neville-Andrews, the director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's production of the play, admits that it is a “complicated and confusing text” and he has spent considerable time and energy attempting to make it more accessible. You’ll still do well to get to the theater early and read the program notes, or you may have trouble following what’s happening in this uneven production.

 

Neville-Andrews returns to the festival after leading it as the artistic director from 1997 to 2009.

 

A weak and cruel man, John is a flawed king. Completely dependent on his mother, Queen Eleanor, he has three major problems. He has usurped the throne from his nephew Arthur; has a rocky relationship with the Vatican; and the English aren’t particularly fond of him.

 

The French King supports King John’s nephew Arthur as the rightful heir to the English throne, but the two sides make peace when the King’s niece, Blanche, marries the Dauphin, son of the French King. Peace doesn’t last long. When Cardinal Pandulph excommunicates John, war once again erupts. The English capture Arthur and King John plot to have him killed.

 

It turns out King John’s father had an illegitimate son, Philip the Bastard. Alan Ball (Philip) plays the fictional character created by Shakespeare to be the counter weight to King John’s betrayal and treachery. Often considered the moral center of the play, he comments on the vagaries of powerful men. Ball is always a compelling figure on stage.

Several of the best scenes in this episodic work involve Paul Riopelle (King John) and David Blixt (Hubert). It is fascinating to watch how Riopelle instructs Blixt to put out Arthur’s eyes. The dawning horror on Blixt’s face needs no words.

 

Another wrenching scene belongs to Janet Haley (Constance) when she discovers her son Arthur has been imprisoned. Knowing his death is inevitable, she rails against the French King’s betrayal, earning our compassion for this mother mad with grief. Haley commands the stage with her performance.

 

This play deals with the casual evil of political expediency but can’t seem to decide if we should take it seriously or not. There were times that elicited laughter seemed inappropriate.

 

Elements of a production should help clarify the story for the audience, and Jeremy Hopgood’s scenic design does just that. The set is decorated with period maps of England and France. The back wall contains a large screen where symbols are projected to indicate place (a heraldic lion for England, the Fleur-di-lis for France, etc.) as well as showing film depicting World War I battles when the two countries were allies. It very effective, as are the minimal set pieces rearranged for a variety of purposes.

 

The music and sound design (Kate Hopgood) serve the production well as does the lighting (Diane Fairchild).

 

The same cannot be said for the costumes (Renae Skoog) that were created purposefully to be “eclectic and contemporary,” which they are; but they don’t always help the audience keep the characters and allegiances straight.

 

The play runs 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission.

 

 

 

 

A lean, clean rendition of historical turmoil

By John Quinn for Encore Michigan

 

 

William Shakespeare's "The Life and Death of King John" is not a bad play, but it is a difficult one. John Neville-Andrews, adaptor and director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's production, calls it "convoluted and intricate." Indeed.

 

The plot is somewhat scattershot; a profusion of characters come and go so rapidly you can't tell the players even with a scorecard – er, program. But it's notable that, while "John" is considered one of nine English history plays Shakespeare wrote in the 1590s, it is arguably the least historical. Mention "King John" to an American and, true to his high school education, he will snap back, "Magna Carta, 1215!" Shakespeare glides right over that event because he was a consummate spin doctor – er, "political strategist." He would happily write about a usurping king but an ineffective king didn't fit the narrative.

Disputed succession is the underlying theme of all of Shakespeare's history plays. As it became obvious that Elizabeth, the "Virgin Queen," would have no heirs of the body, the citizens feared that challenges to the next monarch might lead to civil war. Shakespeare makes the artistic case as how devastating that would be by recalling England's tumultuous past. The reign of John, son of Henry II, was one of the most tumultuous.

 

The familial relationships in House Plantagenet is crucial in understanding the plot of "King John," and MSF has graciously provided a family tree in the program. As briefly as possible, then: Henry, King of England and Duke of Normandy, created an empire by marrying the richest heiress in Europe, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Their combined holdings in France rivaled the French king's, a situation that led to chronic scheming and bloodshed between the two countries.

 

Upon Henry's death the crown passed to his eldest surviving son, Richard Lionheart. Richard died childless in 1199. The crown should have passed to his brother next in line, but Geoffrey was already dead. Ah, but Geoffrey HAD a son, and by the still-evolving rules of legal succession, young Prince Arthur should have been his uncle's heir. But Uncle John, with backing from English barons, jumped the line, much to the chagrin of the French, who wanted the Breton-raised boy as king.

 

And so we move to "The Life and Death of King John." The French ambassador (David Blixt), in the name of his sovereign, Philip II, demands that John hand the crown to his nephew Arthur (Dominic Redman) or face the consequences. John refuses; war is inevitable. But another disputed succession comes into play as two brothers seek arbitration in an inheritance. Queen Eleanor (Amy Montgomery) sees her dead son's semblance in the elder brother and proclaims that Philip Faulconbridge (Alan Ball) is actually Richard Lionheart's illegitimate son. Philip gives up his claim and swears fealty to John. The Bastard is, in effect, the reincarnation of the late king and "hero" of "King John." The fact the character is entirely fictional didn't stop Shakespeare from writing him some rousing speeches and daring deeds. Frankly, John isn't hero material. It was not for nothing that one of his nicknames was "Softsword."

 

Through the course of the play, John manages to alternately attract and repel the French, the Church, his own barons, and pretty much everyone who comes his way. Things come to a head when Prince Arthur turns up "missing."

 

John Neville-Andrew's performance script has two strong advantages over the original. It condenses Shakespeare's five acts into a fine-tuned, lean script that runs about two hours, yet the story is so strong there is no sense that anything is missing. Secondly, the director can choose the themes upon which he will focus. We are challenged to answer: If a king rules by divine right, when is it "right" to depose a king? Further; what legitimacy exists in a government whose authority rests on the principle, "Might is ‘right?'"

 

Wonderful things can happen when the right focus is brought to bear on a text. In "King John," it is the raw power the flows between opposite poles: Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of John, and Constance, Heiress of Brittany, the mother of Arthur. As marvelously played by Amy Montgomery and Janet Haley, the women are raw forces of nature; their individual battles on behalf of a son the catalyst of the drama.

 

The play, however, is not complete without a strong actor to portray the weak monarch, and Paul Riopelle serves handsomely. His John is an opportunistic mama's-boy, devious and dishonest. In a remarkable change of emotion, Riopelle turns the audience's distain to sympathy as he leads us through Johns' slow, agonizing death.

 

The cooperation between director and costumer has resulted in an interesting effect. Although cut and tailoring resemble early 20th century fashions, Renae Skoog's designs take them to extremes. The costumes do not define a particular time, yet they do reflect a

particular character. Thus Louis, the Dauphin (Caleb Probst) sports a purple, satin-finished Zoot suit better suited to a pimp.

 

And costuming is a dead give-away that Neville-Andrews doesn't look at these characters in the same light as Shakespeare did. Far from heroic – in the modern sense – Alan Ball's Falconbridge is taut, menacing and almost jingoistic. How inspired of director and costumer to make him look like a film noir hit man. What an insightful commentary of the times: nobility as thugs and thieves!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival's sitcom concept for 'She Stoops to Conquer' works beautifully

By Ann Holt for MLive.com

 

 

Who would expect to see Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer or the Mistakes of a Night” presented as anything but your typical 18th century drawing room comedy? After all, it was first staged in 1773.

 

But director Robert Kauzlaric of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, who led the festival’s “Love's Labour's Lost” in 2012 and “Tartuffe” in 2011, has turned convention on its head and re-imagined the story as a 1950s sitcom.

 

The concept works beautifully.

 

As the lights come up on what is obviously a modern upper-class home, the servants are observed, slack-jawed and mesmerized by the blue, flickering light of that new-fangled invention – the television.

 

The plot is wonderfully silly. Mr. Hardcastle, a rich country gentleman, plans to marry his daughter Kate to Charles Marlow, the son of an old friend. Hardcastle's second wife is determined to marry her ne’er-do-well son, Tony Lumpkin, to her niece, Constance Neville, so she can keep her greedy hands on the family jewels. Miss Neville, meanwhile, wants to marry Hastings, a friend of young Marlow.

 

Marlow and Hastings, having lost their way, stop at a local alehouse for directions and are tricked into thinking the Hardcastle’s home is a public inn. Once arriving, they assume Mr. Hardcastle is the inn keeper and are rude and dismissive toward him.

Once again the Michigan Shakespeare Festival company turns in a collective success of endlessly creative and comic performances. It is hard to tell who is enjoying “She Stoops to Conquer” more, the audience or the actors.

 

When Marlow (Benjamin Reigel) is first introduced to the proper Kate (Melanie Keller), he stammers and blushes and cannot even look at her. Learning he is not so shy with the lower classes, Kate presents herself to him as a maid, and Marlow reveals his lecherous side.

 

Keller is clever, charming and absolutely perfect as Kate. Reigel plays Marlow with more than enough innocent appeal so he can be forgiven for his bad behavior by the end of the play.

 

Wearing a cardigan sweater with his pipe or a cocktail in hand, Mr. Hardcastle (Alan Ball) is the iconic father we all think we remember. His growing frustration and confusion adds to the fun. Amy Montgomery, who plays Mrs. Hardcastle, is amusingly outrageous as the social-climbing, scheming wife who gets her comeuppance.

 

Destiny Dunn (Constance Neville) is the epitome of a demure sweet young woman, which makes her struggles with her cousin Tony even funnier, while Brandon St. Clair Saunders (Hastings) provides a light comic touch as Miss Neville’s handsome, likeable young man and Marlow’s best friend.

 

Most of the evening’s mischief is provided by Caleb Probst, who plays Lumpkin, in what is an unforgettable portrayal of a 1950s greaser. Obnoxious and annoying, his manic behavior is laugh-out-loud funny.

 

All this nonsense would not be half as much fun without the excellent work of the technical crew.

 

Scenic design by the constantly amazing Jeromy Hopgood seems simple and straightforward but anchors the production. Rather than elaborate set changes, other scenes are played in peripheral locations, keepings the action moving. Supporting the production are Diane Fairchild (lighting); Kate Hopgood (music composition and sound design); Kylie Hoey (properties design); and David Blixt (fight direction).

 

Aly Renee Amidei has created costumes that immediately provide additional clues as to character and time period. The authentic ’50s styles are recognizable but tweaked just enough to add a humorous edge.

 

The play runs 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.

 

What an amazing season for the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. First a beautiful and funny love story in “Twelfth Night,” then a rarely done but important history play in “King John,” and now this cleverly conceived version of “She Stoops to Conquer.”

If you can’t decide which to see, buy tickets to all three productions. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

Oliver Goldsmith meets Lucy and Desi

By Michael H. Margolin for EncoreMichigan

 

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival's production of Oliver Goldsmith's 18th century "She Stoops to Conquer" has been cleverly updated to 1957, which, at first, does not seem felicitous. But when Lady Hardcastle rises in her madly printed, many crinolined dress you think, yes, this is a period of excess and works very nicely, thank you.

 

We have a television set at stage front, and at the rear a huge picture window that brings the outside in and allows a fair amount of spying into the main room, also a clever way to honor Goldsmith's plot of conniving, deceit and, well, the fun of watching people make fools of themselves. Jeromy Hopgood made the good design into a successful reality. By the way, the central set is complemented by two scenes played in the local inn and "at the bottom of the garden" successfully delineated by lighting designer Diane Fairchild.

 

Now don't get me wrong, I don't think all Restoration comedies or comedies of manners need to be taken out of their context. But in this case, Robert Kauzlaric, the director, has used some trickery on his own part to make the plot seem pleasantly vintage, but a wee bit closer to home.

 

In this updating, the characters seem just fine in vintage costumes of the era, nicely done by Aly Renee Amidei – such as the flounced skirt and shirred bodice of Lady Hardcastle's dress, and even the gardener, barefoot and clad in only a pair of overalls.

The meat of the matter is, of course, the challenge for the actors to recite Goldsmith's lines and make them seem apt. There is great success here: Goldsmith was not so much a poet as he was a chronicler of people thrown into the thick of the plot and working their way out. We don't go around quoting Goldsmith, but we remember the good laughs and the actors speak the speech nimbly.

 

The Festival has put together a talented group of actors who know their way around the stage.

 

At the head of the crowd are the Hardcastles, played with verve by Alan Ball and Amy Montgomery: He wants his daughter married to Charles Marlow, coming for a visit. She wants her niece, Constance, married to her son Tony Lumpkin and her inheritance of lots of bucks in family jewels, therefore, kept in the family.

 

Ball has a wonderful scene in Act Two – a hissy fit that draws appreciative applause from the audience. He has reached his limit with the behavior of his guests, Charles Marlow and friend George Hasting, who have been misled by Tony into believing the Hardcastle's home is an inn and treat their hosts with disdain. One of the main themes is how badly the privileged treat the less privileged (which might even be a metaphor for our times).

 

Young Marlow, the potential bridegroom, is played with suavity by Benjamin Reigel, who has the good sense to make him a bit of a likeable boor, though handsome and well turned out in his three button suit. His moues of embarrassment – well grimaces, actually – when truth after truth is uncovered and he realizes his folly, are just right.

 

His opposite, the glamorous Kate, is played by Melanie Keller with relish for her role as a spoiled daughter and a housemaid – to tempt Charles into romance she must help him overcome his phobic reaction to women of his own class.

 

Tony Lumpkin, who puts the plot into motion with his misdirection, is played by the excellent Caleb Probst with an outlandish pompadour and what appears to be a padded midsection. His elaborate spoof of the mischievous brat is softened by his mother's machinations: As he tells her, he is her son so he comes by it naturally. And, yes, that does seem to be an Elvis impersonation – which, with his tummy and white T-shirt above selvedge jeans, is a neat cultural reference.

 

The sweet Constance – loved her flatties – was nicely drawn out by Destiny Dunn. Her paramour, Hastings, was played by Brandon St. Clair Saunders with brio: One rooted for him in his determination to have Constance and her trove of jewels.

 

The assorted servants and Mr. Marlow – Charles' father, who appears out of thin air – were well done by Paul Riopelle, Janet Haley, Wesley Scott, David Helmer, David Blixt and Rick Eva, several of whom doubled for characters in the very funny scene at the Three Pigeons inn where Tony sets the young wooers on their misadventure.

 

In particular, John Byrnes, as the driver for the Hardcastles, gave a quirky performance with a great deal of athletic staging – jumping, somersaulting and so on. I don't know why, but I liked it.

 

When all is said and done, a couple of hours spent in the '50s is a welcome relief from the electronic mayhem embracing our current war-torn and scandal embracing times. Yes, dammit, life was simpler.

 

 

2019 MainStage Performances in Jackson, MI and Canton, MI

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