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Shakespeare kicks butt (02/23/2011)
By Paul Barnes
Iím writing from Syracuse, New York, where I begin rehearsals this week for a production of The Miracle Worker, William Gibsonís play about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, which Iím directing at Syracuse Stage. Thereís a light snow falling outside my apartment window; after several days off traveling in the South, where spring was clearly preparing to burst forth, Iím settling in for a few weeks of below-freezing temperatures and whatís known in this part of the country as ďLake effect snow.Ē I directed in upstate New York earlier this year (Amadeus at Geva Theatre in Rochester), and it couldnít have been more beautiful. But that was late summer/early fall, and winter was just a distant memory. . . or a faint premonition.

After directing Amadeus and then Irving Berlinís White Christmas (Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City), followed by a month at home in Ashland, Oregon, my travels have taken me to Southern California, across the Southwest, and into the heartland: St. Louis, Missouri, to be exact Ė the very center of the country Ė where I experienced my share of ice and snow while directing what seems to have turned out to be a successful, well-reviewed and well-attended production of Shakespeareís Macbeth. Itís my third outing as director of the play; slowly Iím catching up with Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Nightís Dream, both of which Iíve directed nine times; the production of Henry IV, Part 1 which Iíll direct at GRSF this summer will be my third.

People often ask if I ever get tired of directing these plays, and my answer is always the same: ďnope; never.Ē Itís impossible to tire of these scripts. Theyíre too rich, too challenging, too compelling Ė and as craftspeople and artists, they (to put it frankly), kick butt: ours, and everyone elseís.

Macbeth in particular seems to throw down the gauntlet, fairly snarling at those who risk taking it on: ďOh, yeah? I dare you! Iíve got Witches, Iíve got a childless, power-hungy, bloodthirsty couple, Iíve got murder (on stage and off), Iíve got the slaughter of children, Iíve got apparitions, Iíve got battles, I take you all over Scotland and to England and back, Iíve got sleep-walking, madness, and suicide. . . Good luck, buck-o, Iím gonna kick your butt.Ē

And kick your but it does. But we continue to accept the dare of working on these plays because they are so challenging and because like many things in life, working on something so large has countless rewards, even when you feel you may have failed. Shakespeare has a way of challenging us on all levels at once: spiritually, emotionally, physically, creatively, intellectually. His connection to and understanding of the human experience is transcendent; his ability Ė or perhaps itís his utter insistence in an age in which weíre accustomed to sitting back and letting the television do the work for us Ė that we lean forward, listen, respond, engage our imaginations, and/or run alongside him somehow makes us larger human beings. We cannot help but emerge from the experience of working on his plays not feeling grown, regardless of reviews and box office receipts. Thereís something downright cleansing about the experience. When I worked on Peter Shafferís play about Mozart (Amadeus) last year, I read of many professional musicians who said they simply felt ďcleanerĒ after having played his music. Shakespeare has that same effect Ė not just on those who go to the mat to mount productions of his plays, but on those who attend them.

I have been indelibly impressed by the number of people in Winona who have let Shakespeare kick some butt over the last seven summers. Not only those who have given so generously to make this Festival happen, but those who have been willing to look something new in the eye and try Shakespeare for the first time, and discovered in themselves an appetite they may not have known existed. Iíve loved watching people encounter a host of memorable characters from Kate and Petruchio to Romeo and Juliet, Prospero, Caliban, Shylock, Beatrice and Benedick, Don Adriano de Armado, Touchstone, Jacques, Puck, Malvolio, Autolycus, Richard III, Moth, Mercutio, the Dromios, Iago, Costard, Bottom Ė and, yes, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and those Witches -- and Iíve loved watching people from all over the country come to Winona to lean into our work as word of the Festival has spread.

We plan to kick some more butt this coming summer. Two plays by Shakespeare: a re-visitation to his beloved A Midsummer Nightís Dream, and an introduction to his great comic creation, Sir John Falstaff, via his astonishing King Henry IV, Part 1. Plus, weíre mounting a production of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidtís classic American musical, The Fantasticks (which just happens to be based in Shakespeare), our Interns and Apprentices will grapple with King Lear, and our Shakespeare for Young Actors students will work on his late romance, The Winterís Tale.

For a preview of all thatís in store, be sure to join us at Signatureís Events Center on Sunday, March 27 for our annual Spring Preview. Or keep your eye on our website www.grsf.org as details of Season 8/2011 unfold.



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