Bring on the Bard: Idaho Shakespeare Festival readies another season

mdeeds@idahostatesman.comMay 31, 2013 

In 22 seasons as producing artistic director, Charlie Fee has discovered that a dialed-in summer for Idaho Shakespeare Festival requires three things:

1) Two plays written by The Bard.

2) Significant variety among the other three plays.

3) An above-average bottle of vino.

OK, that last part is optional. But the merry, welcoming nature of Idaho Shakespeare Festival is one of its biggest strengths, and that goes for the action on stage AND the picnic-on-the-grass atmosphere.

When it comes time to plot out a season, Fee takes on the challenge like a cultured yet populist host. He has to figure out a way for everyone - not just theater buffs or English profs - to have a good time.

"It's sort of like planning a really good dinner party," Fee explains during a break from rehearsals. "You've got to have variety, but it's got to somehow feel like it all fits together."

The next four months will offer moments that are humorous, dramatic, tragic, zany and challenging - possibly, all on the same night. With 93 performances and 42 actors, Fee says, it will be the biggest season in the festival's 37-year history. Not that this comes as a surprise.

The festival just keeps growing, bit by bit, while operating in conjunction with its sister companies, Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.

Shows are built in Cleveland, then head to Boise - or vice-versa. Actors move between cities. Some get recast. Others come and go.

"The whole structure of moving people around, while it's challenging, it's hard, it's also been really great for everybody," Fee explains. "We're a much better company than we were five years, 10 years ago, by a long shot."

Because of casting needs, the festival has welcomed lots of new faces the last few years, which has helped keep the creative juices flowing.

"It's super healthy for the company," Fee says. "It's exciting. It's just fresh."

Consequently, it's impossible for the dawn of a new ISF season not to feel vibrant and brimming with potential. That translates into big-time ticket sales at the 770-capacity venue.

Nearly 60,000 people attended ISF plays last summer: "When you compare that to the size of Boise," Fee admits, "it's kind of like, 'What?' "

Here are this year's plays, which run in repertory, with the exception of the last one of the summer:

• "Blithe Spirit," by Noël Coward, May 31-June 30: A writer is tormented by the ghost of his ex-wife in this comedy. Like most of Coward's plays, "Blithe Spirit" is an actor's medium, Fee says. As director, his job is keep things running smoothly - you know, doing things like making sure the cocktail ingredients are stocked: "They make and drink 13 martinis in scene one," Fee says with a chuckle.

• "Much Ado About Nothing," by William Shakespeare, June 7-Aug. 4: Renowned director Sharon Ott, who earned praise and awards during her stints leading Berkeley and Seattle Repertory Theater companies, will make her ISF debut with this witty, comedic classic.

• "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, July 5-Sept. 1: Director Victoria Bussert returns for her eighth season with ISF in this musical thriller. It's probably the most technically demanding play of the season - and definitely the bloodiest.

• "King Richard III," by William Shakespeare, Aug. 9-31: Another technical challenge, this play will end the repertory season with the festival debut from director Joseph Hanreddy. Hanreddy spent 17 years as artistic director at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, so he's well-prepared for this history of Richard III's brief, villainous reign.

• "The Foreigner," by Larry Shue. Sept. 6-Sept. 29: Director Sari Ketter, who led "An Ideal Husband" in 2010, will return for this "award-winning, outrageously funny farce" set in a resort-style Southern fishing lodge.

To an outsider, ISF's season might beg the question: Why are there only two Shakespeare plays from a festival that used to do nothing BUT Shakespeare?

"Two is kind of perfect," Fee explains. "First of all, because they're huge, and our audience wants to see Shakespeare - wants the core to be Shakespeare.

"On the other hand, I'll tell you right now that 'Richard III,' of course, will be the lowest attendance," he continues. "It's challenging. The histories are always hard. 'Much Ado' will be really big. But I would bet that 'Sweeney Todd' or 'The Foreigner' will be the highest-selling shows of the season."

And if you do find yourself in over your head at "Richard III"? (This is a joke. You won't.) Hey, there's always that picnic basket. Feed your body and mind whatever sustenance it needs to fully appreciate the totally Boise experience known as Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

"You can bring anything you want into our theater," Fee says, quickly adding, "Well, within reason!

"That's something we'll never change," he adds. "It's too much fun."

Michael Deeds: 377-6407, @IDS_Deeds

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