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Reviewed by:
  • Illinois Shakespeare Festival
  • Megan E. Geigner
Illinois Shakespeare Festival. Bloomington. 1–2 August 2014.

For the last thirty-seven years the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has produced three plays each summer, usually two Shakespeare scripts and a third non-Shakespeare script, in rotating repertory for its outdoor and indoor theatres. The twenty-five-to-thirty-person acting company plays roles in each of the plays, and usually the three productions do not reference one another. For instance, in the 2012 season, the festival produced As You Like It, Othello, and Sheridan’s The Rivals; in the 2014 season, however, artistic director Kevin Rich chose to produce Antony and Cleopatra, Much Ado About Nothing, and Elizabeth Rex, and to interrelate the plays’ casting, allowing for a metatheatrical commentary on gender roles only possible in a rotating repertory season.

Audiences were encouraged to see all three plays in order when possible: Much Ado About Nothing first, then Elizabeth Rex, and finally Antony and Cleopatra. The plays were bound together through Elizabeth Rex, an account of a fictional evening that Queen Elizabeth I spends chatting with Shakespeare, or Will (as he is called in the play), and his all-male acting company in a castle barnyard in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1616. To distract herself from the impending death of her secret lover, the Earl of Essex, whom she has ordered to be executed at dawn, Elizabeth joins the actors just after they have finished performing Much Ado About Nothing. The acting company of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival had also just performed Much Ado About Nothing, either in the matinee hours earlier or the previous night. In fact, the festival actors began Elizabeth Rex as if they had just come backstage from Much Ado About Nothing. They were still wearing their Much Ado About Nothing costumes: a male Beatrice (Christopher Prentice) and male Hero (Colin Lawrence), among others, removing their wigs and makeup. All the while, Will (Thomas Anthony Quinn) wandered around the barn quoting from his new script-in-process, trying to understand the motivations of a queen, and priming the audience for the festival’s production of Antony and Cleopatra on the subsequent night.

The look of the three shows and the marketing for the festival helped the audience to see them as parts of a whole. The front of the festival’s program featured side-by-side photographs of the actress playing both Cleopatra and Elizabeth (Deborah Staples) in full makeup, wig, and costume for each role, emphasizing the idea that she represented two iterations of a Shakespearean queen. Each production played on the same Globe Theatre–inspired set, with only set dressing to distinguish them, and the costumes were, for the most part, period. That said, each of the shows had its own director and could be viewed as a stand-alone production.

Audience members who saw only Rich’s Antony and Cleopatra watched a production that set gendered Eastern decadence and Western discipline against each other, a theme in the script that was reiterated by the actors’ movement qualities. Cleopatra was portrayed as a self-indulgent, exotic, and at times hysterical (in the most gendered meaning of that word) queen whose uncontrolled emotions fueled her ultimate downfall. Dressed in silk gowns and lots of jewelry, she and her Alexandrian women, Charmain and Iras (Bethany Hart and Faith Servant), moved in ways markedly different than the Roman men. They danced, scurried, giggled, and draped themselves across men’s laps or the floor. In contrast, Octavius, Lepidus, and Pompey strutted and marched confidently around the stage dressed in togas and combat boots. Antony (Todd Denning), as the character straddling two cultures, was dressed like a Roman man, but moved like an Eastern woman: he danced, lounged on the floor, and wrapped himself around Cleopatra. His inability to conform to both gendered and Roman standards foreshadowed his doom. The striding men left little doubt that Rome held all the power. Cleopatra’s femininity was destabilizing though ultimately easily conquered, and the production suggested that women’s power is vulnerable, fleeting, and tied to men.

Audiences that saw Paula Suozzi’s all-male Much Ado About Nothing, but not the other...


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