Beyond the Bard 

Idaho Shakespeare Festival replays (and reworks) tradition

Six weeks into its 10th year at the gorgeous Festival Amphitheater and Reserve, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival (ISF) proves that innovation, commitment and audience sensitivity are what builds a vital, viable theater company. Founding members of the company still active in ISF provide a sense of continuity, grounding the company in its community roots. At the same time, a rare cooperative relationship between ISF and Cleveland's Great Lakes Theater Festival—instituted by producing artistic director Charles Fee in 2001—increases the company's artistic and economic scope, supporting a vision that includes expanding the repertory to appeal to ever-wider audiences.

click to enlarge Hay Fever - TROY MABEN

ISF players kicked off the season with Hay Fever, directed by Fee. This comedy of manners, penned in 1924 by British playwright Noel Coward, satirizes the artistic affectations of the Bliss family, who seem to do everything possible to avoid living up to the family name. Coward's farce is at times painfully realistic. Luckily, the spot-on comic timing of the cast brought out the fun in dysfunction.

Kathleen Pirkl Tague shone throughout the production as matriarch (and drama queen) Judith Bliss, a retired actress addicted to the spotlight. Jeffrey Hawkins as Judith's son Simon earned extra laughs in the second scene, when the cynical young painter wilts into an enamored fop. His sophisticated paramour, Myra Arundel (Laura Perotta), was appropriately droll, although Perotta's voice sometimes lacked the dynamic range to make it all the way up to the grassy knoll near the back fence.

Fee's tightly choreographed blocking created striking tableaux that heightened the extravagance of Coward's plot. Nicole Frachiseur's lush period costumes were especially effective in acts two and three, with the clothing colors reflecting the shifting alliances between characters. As the Green Show's Joe Conley Golden and Tom Willmorth suggested in their opening jests, Hay Fever is a fine alternative for audiences put off by (or wanting a break from) Shakespeare—an attitude reflecting ISF's serious interest in broadening its accessibility.

click to enlarge Tempest - TROY MABEN

However, lest die-hard fans of the Bard feel neglected, ISF is also presenting Shakespeare's final comedy, The Tempest. Directed by Andrew May, associate artistic director of the Great Lakes Theater Festival (where the show premiered), this production showcases the talents of many of the company's best actors—from veterans Dan Alan Peterson and Stitch Marker, to acting professors Richard Klautsch and Steve Tague. Sarah Bruner's Ariel brought the house to its feet, while soused Stephano (M.A. Taylor), Trinculo (Jeffrey Hawkins) and Caliban (Lynn Berg) had the audience rolling with laughter.

The bare-bones set, designed by Russell Metheny, consisted of two multi-purpose mobile metal structures that evoked variously the hull of a storm-tossed ship, Prospero's cave and a fairy-island forest. The simplicity and sparsity of the set effectively highlighted the natural beauty of the festival site and its environs, thereby transforming the Barber valley into Shakespeare's enchanted island. The cast disappeared and reappeared down hatches and up ladders (and, as always, up and down the aisles), bringing the audience into the magical world of the play. This is just the kind of experience that makes ISF performances such a treasure.

The season's upcoming productions promise to be just as captivating. Director Risa Brainin takes the helm for her third season with ISF, tackling Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare's so-called problem plays (in other words, a comedy with a social agenda). If her site-specific, Dallas-infused take on ISF's King Lear in 2005 was any indication of what's in store for audiences, this version of Measure for Measure will be a completely different experience than was Gordon Reinhart's innovative all-female production at Boise State last March. Special treat: Measure will feature M.A. Taylor as Pompey, which is sure to offer theater-goers of more opportunities to belly-laugh at the Bard.

With Arsenic and Old Lace, the festival makes a foray into an American theater classic. This perennially popular 1939 black farce about murder, marriage and crazy relatives is widely known thanks to Frank Capra's 1944 film version, starring Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster. Andrew May, who brings with him an impressive list of acting achievements, will debut with ISF in the lead role. The plot's spooky edge should provide a refreshing chill in the midsummer heat, while the quirky humor and inexorable happy ending ensure a theatre experience that is easy-going without being pablum.

Finally, the ISF carries on its newest tradition, the September musical, with Little Shop of Horrors. This 1982 off-Broadway comedy is based on a 1960 B-movie directed by Roger Corman, and was made even more famous by Hollywood's 1986 musical film, directed by Frank Oz, starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin and Bill Murray. Little Shop makes the macabre rock (and roll). The nerdy protagonist, Seymour (played by Tom Ford in his sixth season with the festival), spends too much time with an unusual houseplant. The icing on the cake is a running musical commentary (Greek chorus-style) in the form of a Motown girl group as they doo-wop their way down Skid Row; ISF new-comers Haven Eaves, Alana Simone and Tamara Corbin will strut their stuff as Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon.

Since its inception in 1977, ISF has grown along with the community, and its collaboration with the Great Lakes Theater Festival allows local actors, designers and directors to work alongside theater artists from around the country, increasing the company's economic viability and its artistic breadth. Through the practice of remounting shows (a practice common in ballet and opera, but not a regular occurrence in the theater world), sets, costumes, even cast members move to another theater in another community—lock, stock and barrel. This means theater artists can work year-round–surviving not only summers in Boise, but also winters in Cleveland. For local audiences, this means shows of increasing quality and variety. It seems that ISF and its fans are getting the best of both worlds: big-city theater in a natural setting, experimentation rooted in tradition, vision stemming from local history.

Still four more chances to see Hay Fever. The Tempest runs through mid-August; Arsenic and Old Lace, until September. Measure for Measure opens the first week of August; and Little Shop of Horrors opens the first week of September.

For more details on performance dates and ticket availability, visit the Idaho Shakespeare Festival Web site at www.idahoshakespeare.org.

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