There are two reasons that the Idaho Shakespeare Festival (ISF) continues to pack the house, season after season: They have a kick-ass outdoor venue that serves as a summertime respite in a near-to-town natural setting, and due to their generous sponsors and high standards, the core actors who perform with the festival and the annual guest artists are a theatre-savvy, talented bunch.
Festival enthusiasts welcome the close of spring, as it heralds this annual chance to wine and dine throughout an entertaining show with comfortable seating on the grass or at a table. There isn't a bad seat in the house. With the stars and sky as a secondary backdrop and well-funded costumes and innovative sets, the festival has a leg up in the local theater scene on producing memorable times. And so the paradox is, does this allow ISF to rest on their laurels as these elements practically guarantee a good show, or does it instead put the pressure on, inciting the company to live up to or exceed their fortunate situation?
As the 2005 season has demonstrated, the latter is the case. The actors and directors are producing great performances-Ashland, Oregon, take note. Halfway through the summer, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and She Stoops to Conquer have both received ovations from crowds and critics. Despite both plays being written by a playwright other than Shakespeare, it makes sense that these scripts are included in the season. How much taxing Shakespearean-plot translating ("Anon, good nurse") can repeat audiences really handle anyway?
On opening night for the Forum run, the right amount of excitement was evident in the cast. The pacing was well thought out, and toward the second half, the jokes were especially effective, once the actors fell into a comfortable rhythm, and a jazzy pizzazz was threaded throughout the performance with the colorful, silly costumes and occasional Rockette-style kick lines.
Though mid-career with a lengthy list of accomplishments, Tom Ford played the ringmaster of all slaves as Pseudolus with such verve, that I'd rather peg him as an up-and-comer around whom to plan future shows attendance. Ford has seen the ins and outs of this play, previously playing the role of Hysterium with another theatre, and it showed in his mature character development of Pseudolus. As the affable slave who'll do anything to win his freedom, he attempts to help his master's son, Hero, win the heart of a courtesan in exchange for liberty. Pseudolus contrives a simple plan that turns into a hapless, complicated affair of mishaps and mayhem set to music. Writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart knew comedic dynamics when they wrote the play, though the humor wavers between hysterical and mildly funny-perhaps the result of the dual writers' contributions. Throw in music and lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim and the direction of Victoria Bussert for ISF, and Forum is truly a collaborative vision.
As a fellow slave well aware of his slight seniority over Pseudolus, Hysterium's character is a crowd pleaser. A bit retentive, constantly on the verge of a breakdown, Jeffrey C. Hawkins nailed the spirit of Hysterium with his humorous depiction of the hysteric-reluctant but optimistic at heart (demonstrated best when he sings with conviction, "I'm lovely" after Pseudolus convinces him to pose as a girl).
The girl he pretends to be is the object of Hero's affection, Philia, who eventually becomes the subject of another pretender until the play becomes a circus of look-a-likes running amuck. Kate Rockwell, with the stand-alone best voice of the actors, fills the role of the real Philia, playing her innocent but dumb-as-a-doorknob role well. Her admirer, Hero, played by Matt Lillo, had the weakest vocal range by contrast, but was the ideal typecast for his role as the whimsical son, as adamant in his puppy love for Philia as Pseudolus was for his freedom.
Hero's affection for Philia is soon shared by his father, Senex, and their mutual suspicions of each other set off the best song lyrics sung by the possessive father and son duo. The transparent and tender Senex is well played by Aled Davies, and he garnered genuine affection from the audience for his well-meaning character who ends up back where he started: dominated by his eccentric wife Domina. An excellent singer and dramatist, Christina Lang as Domina even out-did her outrageous embellished bust of sagging breasts-one of those you-just-have-to-see-it kind of of things.
Adding extra zaniness to the already zany bunch was talented Lynn Robert Berg playing Marcus Lycus, the courtesan-trafficking glorified pimp of a character who refuses all responsibility when Pseudolus poses as him and angers the volatile Captain Miles Gloriosis, played with unabashed egotism by Steve Tague. Berg has a well-developed sense of the right facial expression and gesture at each moment, and Tague played the Captain-master-of-all-he-sees role to a T.
On the flipside of the season, She Stooped to Conquer ended its run and demonstrated the benefit time can make on the confidence and flow of a play that has already been performed several times. Though rather long and with a slow start, She Stooped picked up speed to a resounding finish, with all of its actors at their best. Of note, Sara Bruner was excellent in the lead role of Kate, and many of the above-mentioned leads in the Forum also translated with flair into this British tale of tomfoolery and matchmaking gone awry.
I enjoyed the play so much I fell into the lap of the unwitting theater-goers to my left during intermission and proceeded to accidentally kick my glass of wine over behind the same couple 10 minutes later-clumsiness to blame, not inebriation. They even turned to kindly comment after the show, "Good idea, a rice cooker!" when I mentioned to my companions I would carry to the car the birthday gift they had given to me to unwrap at the show. A funny misunderstanding reminiscent of both plays-who would think the Shakespeare Festival would ever get so yuppie as to warrant the question, "Hey, where's the outlet for my rice-cooker?" Until that day, however, the talent of the actors and quality of the festival still outshines their groovy venue.