News Column

Shakespeare fest offers season of beloved and rarely performed works

June 9, 2013


June 09--From one of Oscar Wilde's funniest comedies to a groundbreaking American musical, from an Alfred Hitchcock comedic melodrama to a pair of rarely performed Shakespeare plays, this season's Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival season is "richly dimensional," says festival Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy.

The season's two Shakespeare plays are ones not frequently staged and are new to the festival. Mulcahy says "Measure for Measure" and "King Henry VIII" are the 25th and 26th Shakespeare plays performed at the festival and are "going deeper" into Shakespeare's 37-play canon.

"These are plays that audiences don't get to see often," Mulcahy says.

"Measure for Measure" will be performed in repertory, with the same cast and on the same stage during the same time period, with the Wilde comedy "The Importance of Being Earnest."

The festival first staged two plays in repertory on the Main Stage in 2001, and the format has been a hit with actors and audiences.

"We are testing the boundaries of what's possible," Mulcahy says. "It's always nice to stretch the elastic between two plays. If you can see both, you can see what actors can really do."

He says "Measure for Measure," directed by Fontaine Syer, is a "rich and complex play that asks interesting questions about personal values versus religious values versus social justice."

He says although it is darker than a traditional comedy, the show falls in that category because at the end the stage is not "littered with bodies."

In contrast, he says, "The Importance of Being Earnest" is like "satirical bubbling champagne" and shows Wilde at the height of his brilliance.

Festival regular Jim Helsinger, who Mulcahy says is "one of funniest people we know," will play the Victorian matriarch Lady Bracknell. Mulcahy says it is a tradition to have a man play the role. Helsinger also is directing the show.

Six-time Emmy winner Bob Phillips returns to the festival to design the sets for the repertory shows.

The festival's other Shakespeare production is the historical "King Henry VIII," which will be performed in the way Shakespeare's company did -- with a short rehearsal period and the actors in charge of costumes and set. This is another recent festival addition.

"This is Shakespeare's wedding and beheading play," Mulcahy says. "This show is about characters on the way down who are having power slip from their fingers."

The play is presumed to be co-written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher. It features festival favorite Chris Mullen as the monarch.

The season kicks off this week with Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration and most widely produced work, the musical "Oklahoma!" directed by Dennis Razze, festival associate artistic director.

" 'Oklahoma!' is as much of an American classic as you can get," Mulcahy says. "It has beautiful music and lyrics and is a great way to start off the season."

Expect iconic songs such as "People Will Say We're in Love," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.'"

Michael McDonald, an Allentown native who was nominated for a Tony for his designs for Broadway's recent revival of "Hair," will create the early 20th century frontier costumes for the show.

"He's terrific," Mulcahy says. "We've been trying to get him for years."

Also new to the festival is operatic baritone Doug Carpenter, who will play cowboy Curly McLain, with DeSales-graduate Christine Negherbon as his love interest Laurey Williams.

Also different is that Carpenter and Negherbon will dance in the famous 15-minute dream ballet sequence at the end of Act 1. Productions frequently use different performers to dance the sequence famously conceived by ballet choreographer Agnes de Mille. Mulcahy says using the same performers gives the scene more continuity.

In "39 Steps," Steve Burns of "Blues Clues" fame returns as one of the two clowns who play 100 roles in the slapstick comedy based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie. Co-starring is Anthony Reimer and the show is directed by Matt Pfeiffer. The show will be staged in the intimate Schubert Theatre.

"It's a great cast and really funny," Mulcahy says. "The cast is reduced to four actors in the vein of 'Irma Vep' and 'Around the World in 80 Days.' This is what makes live theater exciting because you get to see transformations at such a rapid pace."

Children's productions return with a medieval-flavored take on the classic fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast," directed by Gina Lamparella. It features prosthetic makeup for the Beast, played by Andrew Goebel.

Also returning is "Shakespeare for Kids," or S4K, which introduces kids to Shakespeare's "Taming Of the Shrew," with the help of a trio of players, a robot and an assortment of puppets. It will introduce kids to plot elements and language from Shakespeare and is written by Erin Hurley.

The season also includes two one-night only events presented by festival artists: Wayne S. Turney returning for his one man performance of "The Gospel According to Saint Mark" and Anthony Lawton in "The Screwtape Letters," an adaptation of the C.S. Lewis story.



-- Where: DeSales University, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley

-- How much: $34-$55, main productions; student rush and packages available; $9-$16, kids' shows

-- Info: 610-282-9455,


-- "Oklahoma!" June 12-30: Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration celebrates settlers in the Midwest.

-- "The 39 Steps," June 19-July 14: A madcap spin on the Alfred Hitchcock film, with 150 characters played by four actors.

-- "The Importance of Being Earnest," July 10-Aug. 4: Oscar Wilde's social comedy is a story of adventure and love spiced with mistaken identities.

-- "Measure for Measure," July 18-Aug. 4: At the center of Shakespeare's dark comedy about morality is a novice nun who is asked to sacrifice herself to save her brother from execution.

-- "King Henry VIII," July 25-Aug. 4: Shakespeare's play about the infamous king known for taking many wives will be performed like in Shakespearean time, with an actor in charge, no designers and little rehearsal time.

-- "Beauty and the Beast," through Aug. 3: A retelling of the classic fairy tale written by Michele L. Vacca.

-- "Shakespeare for Kids," July 24- Aug. 3: Introduces kids to "Taming Of the Shrew" with the help of a trio of players, a robot and an assortment of puppets.

-- "The Gospel According to Saint Mark," June 24: A one-man performance of the gospel from the King James version of the Bible by long-time Shakespeare Festival actor Wayne S. Turney.

-- "The Screwtape Letters," July 29: Festival artist Anthony Lawton adapted the C.S. Lewis story into a 90-minute, two-person play that features tap and ballroom dance and martial arts.


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