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Summit City Shakespeare

From IPFW and First Presbyterian Theater comes a Scotsman, a Shrew and two stages

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-02-24


Thom Hofrichter, Managing Artistic Director of the First Presbyterian Theater, admits something that you don’t expect to hear from a guy who has spent almost his entire adult life in the theater. For a long time, he confesses, he just really didn’t like Shakespeare.

“I thought ‘meh, Shakespeare is over-rated’,” he laughs. “I didn’t understand it. I was lazy. I didn’t embrace the fact that Shakespeare can be hard work.”

Hofrichter is directing Macbeth as part of Summit City Shakespeare, a collaboration between the First Presbyterian Theater and the IPFW Department of Theater. The event serves up both the comic and tragic sides of the Bard with two productions playing through the first week of March.

The IPFW Department of Theater gives us The Taming of The Shrew, a comic battle of the sexes starring Aaron Mann as Petruchio and Jessica Butler as Katherina.

And the First Presbyterian Theater is offering the tragedy Macbeth, the ultimate “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” tale of unchecked ambition starring Dan Ambrose as the title character and Elizabeth Sanchez as his wife.

Summit City Shakespeare came about as a result of a “happy accident,” when both organizations discovered they were doing Shakespeare plays at the same time. “We thought we could encourage people to experience both instead of splitting our audience,” says John O’Connell, director of The Taming of the Shrew and chair of IPFW’s Department of Theater. “We thought we could make this an event for Fort Wayne.”

IPFW and the First Presbyterian Theater are offering coupons in each other’s programs, with an opportunity to save $5 on a ticket for the other show. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, to get together with some of the local theaters and do something in conjunction with them,” O’Connell adds.

There’s a reason the plays of Shakespeare are still read, performed, filmed and discussed some 400+ years after they were written. Actually, there’re many reasons. Through the course of his work, Shakespeare pretty much defined “the human condition” in all its beauty and ugliness before people were even using the phrase “the human condition.” Guilt, manipulation, murder, power play, politics, social mores and manners, comedy, tragedy… It’s pretty much all there, with characters whose motivations — good and bad, simple and complex, base and noble — still ring true today. “For me Shakespeare is the foundation upon which all drama is built,” says actor Dan Ambrose, who plays Macbeth. “He brought a whole level of realism to the theater that the Greeks before him didn’t. He’s given it a timeless, human quality.”

And of course there’s the language, which has inspired feelings of rapture, slack-jawed befuddlement, and rampaging insecurity in almost equal measure …

Which brings us back to Thom Hofrichter and his confession that he didn’t like Shakespeare in his early days. In fact, he didn’t come around until about a decade ago, thanks to a little persuasion by actress Kate Black, a regular on Fort Wayne stages. “(First Presbyterian) has a theater to wrestle with ideas, to wrestle with social behavior, how we behave with one another and how we behave with… some would say God, some would say the universe, whatever you want to call that which is greater than ourselves,” says Hofrichter, explaining the role of the First Presbyterian Theater. “And Kate kept saying ‘so, if that’s the case, why aren’t you doing Shakespeare?’”

Hofrichter gave in and did Othello, a play he had always liked anyway (the character of Iago won him over). “What I discovered was: no wonder people love this stuff.”

Since then, First Presbyterian Theater has done a Shakespeare play each season. Last year, it was Much Ado About Nothing, and Hofrichter figures they were ready for a tragedy this time around. He was originally preparing Macbeth for the Lincoln Museum’s Abraham Lincoln Bicenntennial — Macbeth was Lincoln’s favorite play, and the 16th president learned his oratory from studying the plays of Shakespeare.

Of course, Hofrichter still finds Shakespeare to be hard work. In preparation, Hofrichter and his cast often spend weeks parsing the text and figuring out what exactly those words mean. Hofrichter compares it to musical theater. With a musical, you have to know the tunes, you have to know the songs, before you can really act. It’s the same thing with Shakespeare. “If you’re not getting the right rhythm, it doesn’t matter how hard you’re acting, the audience isn’t going to know what you’re talking about,” says Hofrichter, who spent time in many, many audiences listening to actors who didn’t really know what they were saying. “If you’re punching the right words, an audience will follow you.”

“That’s the way it should be done,” says Dan Ambrose, who worked with Hofrichter before on The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The language is a piece of music, written as poetry. You have to find the rhythm and the tempo. You have to know all of that before you can try anything else.”

The musical theater analogy also rings true for Jessica Butler, the IPFW Theater major who plays Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. “If you don’t understand what you’re saying, there’s no way anyone else is going to understand it,” she says. “If you can get that across clearly, then I think you’re going to get your audience’s attention. You have to know what you’re saying, and you have pursue that in your acting to make sure your audience understands.”

Butler has many Fort Wayne productions to her credit. She was Millie in the Civic’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie last summer, and also played the human Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors in late 2007, just to name a couple. The Taming of the Shrew marks her second Shakespeare play. “I was definitely one of those people who was afraid of Shakespeare and didn’t really understand it,” she says. “You’re basically taught ‘oh, it’s Shakespeare, it should be held to this high level…’”

But working with Larry Life on Comedy of Errors showed her that Shakespeare didn’t have to be so intimidating, that these are exciting stories with fascinating characters. One of her current projects through IPFW is a touring show called “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” which travels to local high schools for short performances.

But The Taming of the Shrew is a challenge for reasons besides the language. The play owes its renown to the film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and for its modernized adaptation as Kiss Me Kate. But the play itself is not produced all that often, especially when compared to other Shakespeare comedies. “This is under the category of one of the ‘problem’ plays,” explains director John O’Connell. “It’s fairly anti-feminine.”

In the play, Petruchio sets out to tame Katherina and make her an obedient wife, and is somewhat brutal to her in the process. It’s all played for comic effect, and Katherina really is a hellion at times, but still, the notion of an independent, headstrong woman “submitting” to her husband at the end (“And when she is forward, peevish, sullen, sour/
And not obedient to his honest will/What is she but a foul contending rebel/And graceless traitor to her loving lord?”) is one of the few examples of Shakespeare that generally doesn’t play well with modern audiences.

Rather than cut Katherina’s final monologue, O’Connell chose a different approach. “My particular take in this production isn’t really about the battle of the sexes, but mainly it’s based on this idea that the attraction between Petruchio and Kate is really more about their mis-fitedness in the world they live in,” he explains. “They both are two of the same kind of people who don’t fit in, which is why at the end of the play they leave Padua and go back to Verona. I’m trying to bring out that idea. That Kate is manly and bullyish, she’s cursed and forward, but mainly because she doesn’t fit in this world.”

Butler says she resolved the conflict by focusing on Katherina as a specific character and personality in a specific place. She says she saw an interview on TV several years ago with a man who had written a book on “what women want.” His take was that women want a “real man” who is going to take care of them. “That’s the way I take Kate,” Butler says. “It’s not that she hates men, it’s that she hates all these men around her because they are more feminine than she is, and she wants a man. And that’s why she’s attracted to him. He’s her equal and can call her on her bluff.”

O’Connell instructed the cast to move towards silly, and also uses live musicians on stage to emphasize the comedy. “They’re doing a lot of the sound effects, the ‘cartoon’ underscoring to the fights.”

The Taming of the Shrew is played for laughs. But no one who perpetrates the dirty deeds in Macbeth is finding much humor in anything. Maybe something deep and significant could be found in the fact that while a domestic battle of the wills requires a few concessions to play for a modern audience, a bloody story about political assassination, ruthless ambition, and guilt-induced madness seems to play just fine as is — trio of witches or not. “The standard line is that Macbeth is about ambition,” says Thom Hofrichter. “But the more I read it, I see that Macbeth isn’t a horribly ambitious guy, but the suggestion ‘you could have this…’ sort of gets lodged in his brain. Once we decide we want something, it’s not a good idea to get between the person and that which they covet.”

“It’s that dark seed that gets planted in Macbeth that drives the play,” he continues. “Lady Mac immediately pledges her soul to the dark side to get this. Mac takes a little bit more. Then they get it, and what they find out is that there is indeed a cost. It’s like the politician that says ‘I’ll do this to get into power, and then I’ll change things,’ but once you’ve done that you’ve pretty much tainted your soul.”

One of the things that’s so appealing about Macbeth is that it’s one of Shakespeare’s most straight forward tragedies. Once Macbeth and Lady Macbeth get on that down bound train, there’s pretty much no stopping. For Dan Ambrose, it was that narrative drive that won him over to the play way back in high school. “I just got it,” he says. “It’s just an exciting story.”

“Macbeth’s ambition takes over, and he just gets enraptured with this idea,” says Ambrose. “When he talks himself out of it, Lady Macbeth slaps him around and says ‘NO! We’re doing this!’ But they’re both on the same page and can’t stop themselves.”

Thom Hofrichter explains that the First Presbyterian Theater’s production of Macbeth is pretty simple, with the actors in modern dress. “Hopefully, we’ll have some creepy sound effects and maybe some nice spectacle trappings of the dark side,” he says. “I mean, they constantly talk about how the stars have gone out, how there’s a palpable weirdness hanging in the air…”

Macbeth begins its run at the First Presbyterian Theater on Thursday, February 19 and goes through Saturday, March 7. The Taming of the Shrew starts Friday, February 20 at Williams’ Theater at IPFW and runs through Sunday March 1.

John O’Connell says the collaborative idea behind Summit City Shakespeare is something he’d like to pursue in the future. “I’d like to talk to all the theaters in town and think about maybe celebrating an author one year,” he says. “Maybe not Shakespeare — there’s not all that many Shakespearean actors to go around for all of us — but I’m hoping to talk to the Arena, the Civic, and some others, maybe do a year of a great American author like Miller or Williams.”

IPFW Department of Theatre presents
The Taming of the Shrew
by William Shakespeare
Directed by John O’Connell
Williams Theatre
Feb. 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 at 8:00 p.m.
Feb. 22 and March 1 at 2:00 p.m.
High School Matinee Wed. Feb. 25 at 10:00 a.m.
Sign Language Interpreted Performance Sunday, March 1

Admission for IPFW students with I.D. is free
$14 Adults, $10 Seniors and Groups of 10 or more
$12 Faculty/Staff/Alumni
$5 Students 18 and under
$8 Other “college” students with ID

The Schatzlein Box Office in the Rhinehart Music Center is open Monday
- Friday, 12:30 - 6:30 pm from Sept. 1 - May 31. Tickets may be
purchased for any show during the season at any time.
Box Office: 260-481-6555
TTD: 260-481-4105
www.ipfw.edu/vpa/theatre


The First Presbyterian Theater presents
Macbeth
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Thom Hofrichter
The First Presbyterian Theater
300 West Wayne Street
February 19**, 20, 21, 27, 28; March 1*, 6, 7, 2009

*Sunday Matinee-curtain at 2 p.m.
**Thursday Preview-curtain at 7:30 p.m., $8_All other dates are Friday and Saturday-curtain at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $16 / $14 for seniors (over 60) and young audiences (under 23).
Box Office: 260-422-6329

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