Smile Politely

The magic of summer under the stars at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Summer is for Shakespeare under the stars and every summer for the last 45 years, Central Illinoisians have been lucky to enjoy the effervescent Illinois Shakespeare Festival. This season’s Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged, Much Ado About Nothing, and King Lear bring the Bard to life at Illinois State University’s extraordinary Ewing Cultural Center. It’s a feast for the soul. 

The summer started with the dynamically rambunctious Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged, scripted by the genius talents of the Reduced Shakespeare Company: Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield. The reunion of local actors, “Tom and Dave” (Thomas Anthony Quinn and David Kortemeier) jumpstarted this wonderful season in typical fashion. With the addition this year of the delightful Adonis Perez-Escobar, the team did not disappoint. As a Shakespeare nerd, nay, more like a Bardolator, I have enjoyed every version of this dynamic adoration of Shakespeare’s plays. The improvisational nature of this romp through all of the plays was nimbly delivered by Quinn, Kortemeier, and Perez-Escobar.

I attended preview night for one of my absolute favorites of the Bard’s comedies, Much Ado About Nothing. The witty banter between Beatrice and Benedick is, as I teach my students, essentially the birth of the Rom Com. It takes genuine chemistry to pull off the puns and linguistic gymnastics; Jessica Dean Turner’s Beatrice and Brandon Burditt’s Benedick did not disappoint. They conducted the cast on this simple but highly functional stage, which included a perpetual fountain, flowing in the middle of Messina throughout the performance. The gooey love between Hero and Claudio, played with all the requisite, but complicated, gooeyness by Madeline Calais and Riley Capp offset the more mature love dynamics between Beatrice and Benedick.

The shift of Leonato to Leonata in the hands of the immensely talented Quetta Carpenter worked perfectly and added a welcome layer of gender politics to this timeless tale of love, deceit, and jealousy. Much Ado, as has been noted over the years, is just as tragic as Romeo and Juliet and is in some ways the play’s mirror image.

Other standouts in Much Ado About Nothing include Jake Blagburn’s embittered Don John who loves feeding his displeasure as much as his brother, the somewhat tragic figure of Don Pedro, played by the mesmerizing Rafael Untalan, loves feeding his joy.

Audience favorite Dogberry and the band of misbegotten members of the watch was brought to life by the impeccable timing and articulation of Dan Matisa.

The music, the lights, Rachel Pabst Barnett’s costumes, scenic designer Jose Manuel Diaz-Soto’s fountain of youth, and the staging all combine under Lisa Gaye Dixon’s skillful direction to do exactly what Shakespeare meant for them to do: enrapture for a timeless evening under the stars.

Photo of outdoor theatre in the round under the stars during Illinois Shakespeare Festival. One actor on a balcony and a group of five on the ground below.

Photo from the Illinois Shakespeare Festival Facebook page.

The magic of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival comes from the alchemy inherent in repertory theatre. The anticipation of discovering which actors will play which roles in the next play is half the fun. Jessica Dean Turner simply sparkled as Beatrice and I wondered which of King Lear’s daughters she might be when I returned to see King Lear a couple of weeks later. Turner’s Regan showed off her range and talent, and Rachael Fox’s Goneril (Fox deftly played Hero’s serving woman Ursula in Much Ado) is beguiling and bejeweled in costumes designed by Kathryn Rohe.

Henson Keys dons the title role in King Lear and his impending madness took center stage in director Robert Quinlan’s well-designed rendition of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Although, sometimes watching Lear I want to scream at Cordelia, convince her to just play the game–for Jupiter’s sake, tell daddy you love him and we can all down some cakes and ale. But, that’s not Shakespeare’s play and we would miss out on the brilliance of one of the best-written characters in all of Shakespeare’s oeuvre: Lear’s attendant, Fool. I deliberately avoid press photos before the plays because I want to be surprised by repertory revelation. Quetta Carpenter’s Fool sparkles in the spotlight of this sombre tragedy. She fully embodies the role, holding a mirror up to Lear’s madness while enchanting us with her song and astute melancholic wisdom.

Madeline Calais’ Cordelia will break your heart in all the ways she’s supposed to and Dan Matisa’s Kent will stick in your head and gut as he desperately tries to be the one good guy in this tale stoked by envy, narcissism, and greed. Riley Capp’s puckish Edmund and Rafael Untalan’s Gloucester round out the cast who command the sceptered isle at the Globe-inspired Ewing Theatre.

While he didn’t have huge roles in these plays, another up-and-comer to look for this season is the University of Illinois’ acting major Jaylon Muchison (a notable Lord in Much Ado and the Duke of Burgundy in Lear), who dominated in his role as Chris in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, directed by Latrelle Bright last spring at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts. 

The cast and crew of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival includes Equity Actors, United Scenic Artists, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, Illinois State University students, University of Illinois students, and local actors and designers from every background. I’m biased, but the genius of Shakespeare resides deep in the mystical underpinnings of his stories and adaptations. As Debra Ann Byrd, former director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival and the new Artistic Director of Arizona’s Southwest Shakespeare explains in American Theatre’s January 2022 podcast, Shakespeare is for everyone in every era, though theatre companies have work to do to bring these classics into alignment with today’s audiences.

Our own Ilinois Shakespeare Festival finds ways, each and every season, to enhance Shakespeare’s classic tales with an eye always towards our contemporary and evolving audiences. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us in 2023.

You’ve still got time to get tickets to experience this season’s Shakespeare in one of the most beautiful theatrical spaces in, at least, all of the Midwest. Take a picnic basket and a bottle of wine and enjoy dinner on the spectacular grounds. Catch some live jazz before the show on the stage in the courtyard. The Ewing Cultural Center hosts delicious food trucks on certain nights and the atmosphere is nothing shy of a complete escape to Shakespeare’s transformative green world.

Wrapping up their 45th season on August 6th, the Ewing Cultural Center will host a cabaret and fundraiser known as the Bard Bash. Get your tickets now and party like it’s 1599!

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
The Professional Theatre at Illinois State University
Ewing Theatre
48 Sunset Rd

Top photo from the Illinois Shakespeare Festival Facebook page.

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