Iowa’s Many Mannered Love of the Bard
(Originally published 2010)
Last month Othello’s anxiety reverberated through Greenwood Park in Des Moines.
“I have lost the immortal part of myself.”
Yet, four hundred years after William Shakespeare wrote those words, it remains to be seen whether they were well founded. The Bard of Avon is bigger than ever in America. Elizabethan theaters and Shakespeare festivals have become primary tourist attractions in cities from Ashland, Oregon and Cedar City, Utah to Odessa, Texas and Hempstead, New York. For several years, outdoor Shakespeare festivals have been drawing large crowds, including many Iowans, to Kansas City, Omaha and beyond. In Rosalind’s words from As You Like It, “Farewell Monsieur Traveler.”
At least six different companies will produce Shakespeare events in Iowa this summer. In Des Moines, two of them will duel, like Mercutio and County Paris, over the same weekend for the second year in a row. That coincidence could turn mid July into a midsummer week’s dream for Bard lovers. Performance dates might be the most common denominator for Des Moines’ two biggest Shakespeare events. Certainly, their venues do alteration find.
Shakespeare on the Lawn
Venerable Salisbury House was built in the Roaring Twenties. Cosmetics magnate Carl Weeks and his wife Edith modeled it after the 16th century King’s House in Salisbury, England, a mansion which Shakespeare himself would have known. The Salisbury House Foundation’s stated purpose for the 42 room house and its collections is “to preserve, interpret, and share (its) international significance for the educational and cultural benefit and enjoyment of the public.” So their annual productions of “Shakespeare on the Lawn” tend toward faithful interpretations of the plays. That conservative approach suits Repertoire Theater of Iowa (RTI) director Richard Manning well.
“As Shakespeare wrote, ‘the play’s the thing.’ His plays have stood up for over 400 years. I heard (British actor) Jonathan Miller speak at symposium called ‘Reinventing the Classics.’ Miller was known for that from his work with Beyond the Fringe but he adamantly insisted that the classics should not be reinvented at all. Their main value is the window they provide for looking in on another time and place, to the way people lived in another era. That’s why we love Salisbury House, it comes as close as anything to setting Shakespeare in his own time,” Maynard explained.
“Be careful, the queen has spies everywhere,” he warned picnickers.
For RTI, all the mansion’s balconies, gardens, terraces and porches are a stage. Even its underground tunnels connect to backstage dressing rooms.
“We don’t see any need to put Shakespeare in a contemporary setting. We don’t even lighten his sentiment. That’s why we played the mean things that are done to Malvolio (in Twelfth Night) as maliciously as they were written. That’s the lens through which Shakespeare observed his world, with an overkill of malice in his humor. It seems to surprise people today but it shouldn’t. After all, Shakespeare wrote the prototypical slasher film - Titus Andronicus,” Manning explained.
“We chose The Merry Wives of Windsor this year because it’s the only play Shakespeare set in his own time. It’s a magnificent window into his world. And this year, when Master Ford hires Falstaff to seduce his wife, it won’t be done in the manner of buffoonery. It will be a nasty, jealous thing,” Manning predicted.
The Simon Estes Riverfront Amphitheater was built as part of Des Moines’ downtown revitalization in the 1990‘s. A civic park, it hosts multiple concert series each summer and its price scale discriminates to favor free events and weddings. As a “people’s park,” it suits Shakesperience™ Fest - the current name for a theatrical company founded by Lorenzo Sandoval and Robin Heinemann, who were also the original producers of the Salisbury House’s Shakespearean event.
"We don't do 'yer run of the mill’ Shakespeare'," the couple said, emphasizing that their company creates Shakespearean drama for a new, broader audience. This year‘s production of A Midsummer Night‘s Dream Extravaganza will move Shakespeare from the Golden Age of Athens to the mythological Illyria (site of Twelfth Night) in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Tina Haase’s original music will mix with show and movie tunes from the 1930‘s. Sandoval said to expect John Zickefoose’s Puck to be “more like Noel Coward” than the usual impish bad boy of forest. Argentine choreographer Karina Barone will translate the entire dialogue of the fairy royalty into silent dance. Heinemann predicted that these fairies will suit the elaborate fancies of the fairy people cult too. Sandoval will write new dialogue, in iambic pentameter, to help the audience keep up with the spirit or the fairies. He explained his approach.
“Modern dramaturgy tries to make Shakespeare as accessible as possible. We want to discover new ways of doing theater. That adds to the canon at the same time it expands the audience. I think that’s how we discover new insights into Shakespeare as well as humanity,” he said.
Venues aren’t the only difference between the companies. Salisbury House sells tickets. Shakesperience™ Fest is free. It’s also more ambitious, and better endowed, than its rival company with a budget ten times that of RTI’s entire annual budget. Heinemann pointed out that it’s only about a fourth that of Omaha’s Shakespeare fest.
“We want to compete with Omaha - to keep Iowan’s in Iowa spending tourist dollars and even attracting a few Nebraskans,” she said.
Heinemann mentioned eight different funding sources before adding “and many, many more. More than I can count.” She said that her multiple grantees also make peripheral activities possible. This year’s event will include Family Night, VIP parties, a mini art fair, wine tastings, after parties, cocktail soirees for young professionals, and library programs all over metro Des Moines. There will also be readings by a children’s book author Cynthia Mercati and scholarly pre-show talks on Shakespeare in the African American tradition and community by WOI radio’s Hollis Monroe.
The Picnic’s the Thing, Too
The two troupes do have some things in common. Both use elaborate period costumes, by Drake University’s Josefa Poppen (RTI) and by Mell Ziegenfuss (Shakesperience™ Fest). Both encourage audiences to come early and picnic in beautiful venues.
Last year’s Salisbury production brought together family reunions and multiple generations, including babes not yet out of swaddling clouts. Sarah Ekstrand and Kirk Martin said they both began attending Shakespeare plays at around age eight but they wanted Lola Plum Martin to have an earlier start. She was six months old when their family watched last year from a discrete distance on the lawn of the magnificent garden.
At Simon Estes, prizes are given for the most elaborate tailgating displays. In fact, SF even persuaded the city of Des Moines to grant a festival exemption to allow people to bring their own bottles of wine. Their free shows attracted a wide eyed, multicultural audience. Edwina Brandon, Ellen Yee, Tim Hickman, Margaret Rubican and Frank Vaia came to deconstruct Coriolanus’ “love of a cup of hot wine.” Their soup swapping club held a monthly meeting at the Shakespeare event last summer where they enjoying borscht, cherry soup, cucumber soup and crème de Crecy - with room temperature wines.
“Wine’s a good familiar thing when well used,” they quoted from Othello.
Central Iowa’s different theatrical companies are showing audiences that the plays of the man who created Othello are at least that too, if not yet immortal.
July 23 - August 2
“The Regina Monologues”
Shakespeare on the Lawn
July 21-24, 2010
Repertory Theater of Iowa‘s “As You Like It”.