Friday, July 30, 2010

Two Days at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

When I discovered the Illinois Shakespeare Festival last year, I was blown away by the setting: The open-air theater is in the back yard of Ewing Manor, a Channel-Norman mansion with stone walls and towers, a slate roof and timber framing. The sloping lawn is a great place for picnics, and the manor's courtyard hosts low-key musical acts before each show.

A project of Illinois State University, the festival offers solid acting and traditional interpretations of plays by William Shakespeare and other playwrights. Last season, I saw a hilarious production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the lightest and funniest version I have seen. This season, I stayed for two days, braving a rain storm to see The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Tempest.

With Merry Wives, I broke a fundamental rule: I did not read the play before seeing it. I've read much about the weakness of this text, however, particularly in terms of the character of Falstaff. Although this production was well done, I have to agree with the critics: The text is amusing, but it lacks substance. Falstaff is a shadow of his Henry IV self, a villain and fool in his own play. The actors here did the best they could with the material, however, and the evening passed quickly.

I was somewhat less impressed with this production of Tempest. (To be fair, I just saw the Stratford production with Christopher Plummer, which is probably impossible to top.) The actor who plays Prospero is not memorable here, and several of the roles seem miscast. Many comic opportunities are missed or underplayed, and the role of Ariel lacks magic and mystery.

The play did have one fantastic moment. One question people often ask about this play is: What are Prospero's original intentions for revenge, and why does he abandon them in favor of forgiveness? In this production, there is a clear moment of reversal:
Ariel: ... If you now beheld them, your affections would become tender.
Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.
Here, Ariel and Prospero exchange a long look, and Prospero's anger melts away. When he responds, "And mine shall," the turning point is clear, and Prospero chooses the "rarer action" of forgiveness rather than vengeance. It's a great moment in an otherwise average play.

No comments:

Post a Comment