In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

The cast of "Much Ado About Nothing" takes a bow at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

Milwaukee has a big impact on Illinois Shakespeare Festival

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival could well have a subtitle saying "Also Starring Milwaukee."

A theater crowd from Milwaukee plays a major role in the festival, which opened over the weekend at the gorgeous theater on the grounds of the Ewing Cultural Center at Illinois State University in Bloomington. The theater, which seats 430, is one of the most glorious outdoor facilities I have ever seen.

Jonathan West directed "Much Ado About Nothing," while Paula Suozzi directed "Elizabeth Rex." Some of Milwaukee's finest actors are in the company that's performing three plays – "Antony and Cleopatra" is the third – in repertory during the summer run. They include Matt Daniels, Todd Denning, Norman Moses and Deborah Staples.

In addition, the formidable Kevin Rich, very familiar to Milwaukee audiences as an actor, is the artistic director at Illinois Shakes and directs the third play this season.

Bloomington is only a shade over three hours from Milwaukee, but the trip is surely worth it for Milwaukee Shakespeare fans. There were even a smattering of familiar faces in the opening night audience.

One of the most interesting things about this series is that all three plays are tied together.

"Much Ado" led the weekend with all its comedy, and tragedy followed with "Elizabeth" which was written by Timothy Findley and first performed in 2000. The story is of Queen Elizabeth, who has just requested a performance of "Much Ado" as a distraction from the impending execution of her former lover. As the performance closes, we find Shakespeare himself engrossed in the writing of "Antony." Thus, the common thread for these plays.

"Much Ado About Nothing"

This was the second version of "Much Ado" I've seen this summer, the first at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, a world class production by a world class company – directed by David Frank, the longtime head of APT and a man revered as a builder of what is one of the very best summer theater programs in the country.

The version unveiled by Illinois Shakes, however, doesn't come close to having to take a backseat to the spectacular APT version.

This rendition, under West's distinctive hand, is an all-male version, just what it was like when Shakespeare wrote the play 415 years ago. It would be over 60 years before women actually took the stage to play the part of women.

I knew this was going to be an unusual production when I entered the theater and saw the cast in various stages of activity before the play even started. Daniels, who played Benedick, prowled the stage, half-costumed and practicing his warm-up exercises. Colin Lawrence, who would play Hero, sat on a chair while a makeup artist made sure his lipstick looked perfect and adjusted his flowing wig of golden hair.

Phillip Ray Guevara, who played Don John, walked up the aisles of the theater thanking patrons for coming and asking if they were comfortable. Moses, who played the ridiculously funny Dogberry, stretched. Several actors led the still-settling audience in the wave – probably not part of audience interaction four centuries ago but helpful in creating the atmosphere of the day.

The immediate perception was that this was going to be a special and interesting evening, an example of what is called "original practice" Shakespeare. Companies throughout the world are experimenting with "original practice," meaning all male casts along with the kind of raucous and Rabelaisian humor common with the performances at the old Globe Theatre. Those exercises were followed by an explanation of the play by several actors.

Once the business was out of the way, the (imagined) curtain rose, and it was only moments before a song and dance number by the entire cast broke out. It either was or wasn't "original practice," but it certainly set the tone that we in the audience were about to see something unique.

"Much Ado" is the tale of two love stories: between Claudio and Hero, and between Beatrice and Benedick. The Claudio/Hero love is interrupted by manufactured rumors of her pre-wedding infidelities but ends up with all hands on deck and a wedding happily prepared.

The Beatrice/Benedick relationship is one of smart and witty barbs thrown at each other followed by eavesdropping on fanciful conversations designed to convince them of deep love, followed by a happy kiss and the promise of lifelong devotion.

The two men who played Beatrice and Hero were a wonderful demonstration of how great acting removes any gender stereotype from Shakespeare. Lawrence was especially dazzling, both in performance and in his appearance, the spitting image of Olympic gold medalist and "Dancing With the Stars" winner Meryl Davis. His every movement and expression gave us a woman eager for and capable of great love.

In contrast, Christopher Prentice's Beatrice was unmoved by any thoughts of love or marriage. She was obviously determined to remain a grumpy by choice spinster, until the first murmurs of a lover filled both her ears and her heart.

Both Daniels as Benedick and Moses as a side-splitting Dogberry got as many laughs as I've ever heard in this play. Moses is an absolute master at the kind of character building that can give you both gales of laughter and moments of sympathy.

The first act of the play is the one filled with humor while pathos rears its head in the second half, broken only by Dogberry. But eventually the lies are proven as such, and false accusations are dispensed with as everything ends in joy and forgiveness.

I loved this play, but it served to remind me how much West is missed in the Milwaukee theater landscape. After running the respected Bialystock & Bloom for a decade, he signed on with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. He occasionally dips his foot back into work on the stage, but his presence as both an actor and a director are deeply missed. I know people have to do what they have to do, but West's gifts would create a welcome return to our stages.

"Elizabeth Rex"

The issues of gender identity and sexuality are preeminent in the stunning production of "Elizabeth Rex" on the second night of the repertory opening at Illinois Shakespeare.

It features a hide-bound Queen Elizabeth sparring, helping and getting help from an equally hide-bound Ned Lowenscroft, an actor who specializes in playing women in the plays of William Shakespeare and is a member of his troupe, The Lord Chamberlain's Men. In addition, Ned suffers from the pox, probably syphilis.

On the eve of her ordered execution of the Earl of Essex, the Queen has watched a performance of "Much Ado About Nothing" (which opened the repertory Friday night) to distract herself from the fact that the man she has ordered executed is her former lover. She has stamped him a traitor for arranging a truce instead of bringing home victory in a war with Ireland.

The actors are confined to a barn following the performance and are surprised when the Queen visits. She is drawn to Lowenscroft and the dance of the gender and sexual uncertainty begins in earnest.

For the queen, it's an issue of ruling a kingdom, or in this case, a queendom. Surrounded by men, she was determined to "outman" them at every turn.

"I killed the woman in my heart so that England might survive," she admits with sorrow as he faces Lowenscroft. "I shall die of regret for never having been myself."

For Lowenscroft, the crisis is his constant onstage role of a woman and the memory of a passionate and fulfilling sexual liaison with an Irish soldier, played with expected depth and joy by Milwaukee's Matt Daniels. In his heart, he knows he is a man but is unsure how to act and feel like one.

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