What makes Idaho Shakespeare Festival special?
Somehow it turns out that every Idaho Shakespeare Festival season has an underlying theme. You just have to look for it. For the 2019 four repertory plays, that theme is “power.”
“You could make the argument that all of Shakespeare’s plays are about who holds power and what happens when it’s subverted,” says Festival Producing Artistic Director Charlie Fee.
Fee programs the seasons for Idaho’s festival, Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater and the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, and is always working about two years out to plan the shows and how they will travel between the three cities. (Two plays are created in Cleveland, two in Boise and then they swap. A fifth show is created in Boise but plays Tahoe first).
So it’s interesting how the plays land in the current cultural paradigm and feel entirely relevant.
Power is a timely topic. American politics has been plagued by polarizing divides and accusations of abuses of power abound, and the president wields Twitter like a club. It’s very Shakespearean.
It’s well known that The Bard often wrote plays with the intention to provide lessons in leadership to monarchs and politicians, and give voice to the people. There often were real-world situations that inspired him. But it’s not just the Shakespearean plays that address power. The others in the season also reflect the theme.
‘The Taming of the Shrew’
Friday, May 24-Sunday, June 23.
The season opens with director Sara Bruner’s take on Shakespeare’s comedy about the dating game — sort of. Here the power struggle plays out through a battle of the sexes. The fair Bianca is the object of may suitors. But she cannot marry before her older — and ill-tempered — sister Katherine finds a match. When the roguish Petruchio takes up the task to court and marry Kate, an epic battle of the sexes ensues, and through it power shifts into high gear as wills and wits collide.
“Shrew” is a tough play to tackle with today’s rapidly changing attitudes about gender, the #metoo movement and gender fluidity. But Bruner is more than a match for it. Under today’s lens, the play reveals itself in a different way, she says.
She infers from an induction (an introduction story) to the play — that is not often performed — in which an impoverished drunkard named Christopher Sly is fooled into believing he is a gentleman. For Bruner, Sly informs her Petruchio, who is a fortune-hunting pretender, and deeply flawed.
“So Shakespeare has it in there for a reason. So for me they’re equal in this realm,” Bruner says. “(Petruchio) comes to the table with just as much baggage as Kate. So it’s not just Kate saying women need to be a certain way. It’s acknowledging that everyone has a weakness and hopefully what we see is a co-taming.”
This production is set on the company’s Elizabethan-style Globe Theatre-inspired set, so there will be on-stage seating available.
‘Witness for the Prosecution’
Friday, May 31 through Sunday, July 28.
Next up is Fee’s production of Agatha Christie’s classic courtroom thriller. Leonard Vole is accused of killing a wealthy woman to gain her fortune. His attorney believes he is innocent, but as his trial progresses, surprising testimony, examinations and plot twists keep the pursuit of the truth at bay. Are truth and justice the same thing? This is a who-done-it that keeps the jury — and the audience — guessing, right up until its shocking end.
“These plays are so delicious to work on,” Fee says. “(Christie’s) plays are deeper than you think. The company really has to dig in. Her craft is story and dramatic action — and she’s a genius at comic writing.”
The struggle for power in “Witness” is everywhere: between the two attorneys — one older and more forgiving, one young and ambitious — and the married couple at the center of the drama. But the biggest questions delve into the power justice within the law, Fee says.
Christie published the original story in 1925 but didn’t write the play until the early 1950s, just as Britain was rebuilding after World War II, and as Sen. Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee raged in the U.S. It’s no coincidence that Vole’s wife, Christine, is German.
“The (1925) story ends without justice,” Fee says. “The play ends with rough justice, but it still is a kind of restoration of the English legal system, which was upended after the war.”
‘The Music Man’
Saturday, June 18 through Sunday, Sept. 1
“The Music Man” is easily one of the best-loved American musicals. It celebrates small-town America at the turn of the 20th century in a tale about a fast-talking salesman, Harold Hill, who pedals kids’ bands — instruments, uniforms and all — but doesn’t read a note of music. His slick, fast-talking tricks are going great until he lands in River City, Iowa, where the plain-spoken folks prove more of a challenge than he thought — especially the town’s librarian and music teacher, Marian Paroo.
Filled with musical theater chestnuts such as “’Til There was You,” “Seventy Six Trombones” and “Marian the Librarian,” the real power in this show isn’t that of a swindler over his marks, director Victoria Bussert says.
“What he’s really selling is the hope of music. It’s about the power music has to bring color into the lives of these people,” she says. “And you’ll see it in a very tangible way in this production. ”
That’s something very personal for Bussert, whose mother was the music teacher at her elementary school.
“She went to the school and said, ‘I will teach music for free because it’s so important,’” Bussert says. “So every child got a recorder and learned how to play. In many ways we sounded like Harrold Hill’s band from the show with his Think System.”
Bussert is reassembling her design team from last season’s “Mamma Mia!” including Broadway costume designer Tracy Christensen. Together they plan to create a palette that moves from grayed-out color scheme to one that’s increasingly colorful and brilliant after the Wells Fargo Wagon arrives at the end of Act I.
This will be the largest musical production the festival has undertaken, Fee says. “We looked at doing it once before but thought it was too big, but then when we really looked at it, it’s not that far off from what we’ve doing in past years,” he says.
Up until now, last summer’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with its cast of more than 20 and community chorus, was the company’s largest production. “The Music Man,” because of the number of children in the cast, will surpass that.
And no, there doesn’t need to be 76 trombones at the end to make it work, Bussert says. And she promises a few surprises.
Thursday, Aug. 1 through Thursday, Aug. 29
Sara Bruner returns to direct the ultimate political power play. “Julius Caesar” is rife with intrigue, treachery, betrayal and their consequences. The play unfolds as Caesar returns to Rome victorious after defeating his rival Pompey. The ruler is at the height of power and ambition when the senators and advisers around him, including close friend Brutus, decide Caesar must be killed. After the murder, the tide of events nearly brings the entire empire crashing down.
Bruner is still in the design phase with her creative team, but it’s clear this won’t be your parents’ “Caesar.” Bruner is turning the play on its ear to offer a new perspective with cross-gender casting. Yes, this Caesar and Cassius will be played by women.
“There are so many great women in this company, and giving women a voice, voices that often are left out, lets you hear the text in a different way,” Bruner says. “And we’re ready to bring women into the conversation about power.”
‘Million Dollar Quartet’
Friday, Sept. 6-Sunday, Sept. 29
This jukebox musical brings together a rock ’n’ roll dream team as it revisits the fateful night in 1956 when Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley found themselves at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, for what is considered the greatest jam session in rock history. You’ll get to know these future powerhouse superstars when they were young, hungry, competitive and struggling against the sometimes unkind whims of the music industry.
“You get to see these guys before they become what we know them as,” says director Hunter Foster.
A Tony-nominated performer and artistic director at Syracuse’s Redhouse Arts Center, Foster has directed multiple productions of “Million Dollar Quartet” since he appeared as record producer Sam Phillips in the 2010 Tony-winning Broadway production.
“I directed it for the first time six years ago,” he says. “It’s been so rewarding that I haven’t wanted to go back to performing.”
He draws on a talented pool of actors/singers/musicians for each production, so these triple threats are not part of the festival’s repertory company.
“This is a specialty thing. These performers have to be able to play their instruments — really play,” Foster says.
And this is the first time Foster has set it for an outdoor space, which will add a different dimension to the show.
Note: September shows start at 7:30 p.m., with no Greenshow.
YOUR FESTIVAL GUIDE
What to bring
- Something to sit on: A blanket or low-back chair for the lawn or berm. You can rent a small wooden chair for $2.
- Something to wrap up in: Once the sun goes down by the river, you know the temperatures will drop. Sunscreen, a hat and mosquito repellent are good ideas early in the evening.
- Something to eat: Bring your own picnic, wine or beer (no liquor). Or you can grab a meal at Café Shakespeare. Order online at IdahoShakespeare.org/cafe-shakespeare or call 208-947-2067. Then dine in the amphitheater or on the riverside patio.
- A good attitude: Performances won’t get called off until the last minute because of weather. Actors can perform in a drizzle — or without costumes in heavier rain — but if things get torrential, if there is lightning or high winds, the performance will be stopped. If that happens before intermission, you’ll get a rain check.
Tickets and more
Dates and times: Friday, May 24, to Sunday, Sept. 29, Idaho Shakespeare Festival Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. Shows start at 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays May through August; All September shows are at 7:30 p.m. The amphitheater opens at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and 6 p.m. on Sundays; Café Shakespeare opens a half-hour earlier. Greenshows start at 7:20 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays May to August. No Greenshows in September.
Season tickets: The Classic: three-, four- and five-show packages are $140, $160 and $180 any night, $125, $145 and $165 Sundays-Thursdays; Student tickets: $50, $60 and $65 any show with reserve seating. Flex packages also are available. IdahoShakespeare.org and 208-336-9221.
Individual tickets: $35-$52 weekends, $28-$42 weekdays, ($35-$57 weekends, $30-$45 weekdays for “The Music Man”); $22-$31 previews ($24-$34 for “The Music Man” preview); $13 for ages 6 to 17 on family nights only; $22 for students with I.D. any night. On-stage seating is available for “The Taming of the Shrew” at the hillside price.
Note: All Sundays during the run of “The Music Man” are family nights. Teachers receive a discount on Educator Night, Wednesday, June 12.