|Image courtesy Great River Shakespeare Festival|
|A scene from 2011's King Henry IV, Part 1.|
Speaking with Paul Barnes last week, it was clear that this was the calm before the theatrical storm. The producing director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona was deep into final preparations for that evening's first performance of the season.
"It's going to be a real busy seven weeks," he says.
For the ninth edition, the festival features two works by Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona and King Lear, presented by the professional company, a production of the always-popular The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and All's Well That End's Well from the Intern/Apprentice Project.
"We are always looking for a particular balance. In general terms for Shakespeare, we want something serious and something comedic; something familiar and something less well-known; and something from the earlier part of his career and something from the middle or later part of his career," Barnes says.
The festival takes place through the end of June through August 5 at the Performing Arts Center at Winona State University in the southeastern Minnesota city.
For this season "we were ready for King Lear. We have the right actors and the right directors," Barnes says.
That includes director James Edmondson, who is an associate artist at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Milwaukee-based actor Jonathan Gillard Daly as the mad King.
The play has been bubbling up the festival's list for several years. "I was at Target in Winona and the clerk asked me, 'When are you going to do King Lear?' You shouldn't underestimate the potential audience in Winona," Barnes says.
For Two Gentlemen of Verona, Barnes has set the action in the 1950s, though the plot still centers on a particular bit of 16th-century values. "For the value system of the time, the love between two male friends was the purest you could have. If one committed a betrayal and then apologized, it was incumbent on the other to accept that and then make a sacrifice. In the 21st century, we have a hard time understanding that," Barnes says.
The pre-'60s Italian setting not only made for an interesting contrast to the primitive look of King Lear, but it was an era "where there were established codes of behavior, many of which have gone by the wayside," he says.
All of that is to help bring the heart, and the comedy, of the play to the forefront.
"I've seen a number of productions where the director seemed to have contempt for the material. It's an early play. He was just starting out and it is not as sophisticated, but it's still Shakespeare and a lovely play," Barnes says. "The challenge is to get to the youthfulness, and to make what happens in the play true and meaningful. It's not a farce or a satire. You have to find the heart of it."
As the festival has grown, it has found both audiences who travel from out of town for a visit to the Mississippi-valley city and those from the area. "I would say our demographic is about 50-50," Barnes says. "We are interested in growing both of those demographics."
Along with the plays, the festival features a number of special events through the season aimed at getting people out to the theater, or at least talking about Shakespeare. Also on July 22, there will be a staged reading of a new work, Georama.
"They are going to be in residence for a week, and then do a public reading that is free and open to the public. With that feedback, we can decide what the next step will be for moving it forward in our 10th anniversary season," Barnes says.
IF YOU GO:
Great River Shakespeare Festival
Winona State University, Winona
Through August 5
For information, call 507.474.7900 or visit online
125 Mark St., Winona, MN