A traditional ‘Othello’ gets jealous at Woodward Park

THEATER REVIEW

Under new leadership, the resilient Woodward Shakespeare Festival kicks off a new era with a compelling season-opening production of “Othello.” This slow-burn exercise in the darker side of human nature — chock full of anger, envy, misogyny, insecurity, ruthless manipulation, problematic racial politics and, of course, the famed “green-eyed monster” of jealousy — is heavy stuff. I’ve always considered the play to be a major challenge both for a theater company and the audience. This production, which continues through July 7, has its uneven spots, but it also can be quite accomplished. Here’s a rundown:

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LaVon Jean-Pierre plays the title role in “Othello.” Photo / Woodward Shakespeare Festival

The storyline: The play is one of the best known of Shakespeare’s works. The talented Othello (a commanding LaVon Jean-Pierre) is a Moorish prince in Venice. (The term “Moor” at the time was generally used to describe someone with dark skin, and the role is expected to be played by a person of color.) After eloping with the high-born Desdemona (Alexis Elisa Macedo), Othello is sent to command the Venetian army on the isle of Cyprus to defend against the invading Turks. Luckily for him, a storm destroys the Turkish fleet. Unluckily for him, his trusted lieutenant, Iago (Casey Ballard), hatches an elaborate scheme to make Othello think his wife is cheating on him. With nary a fact-checking bone in his body, Othello’s jealousy takes over.

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In ‘Othello,’ 16th century lies and innuendo can seem a lot like 21st century social media

Woodward Shakespeare Festival tackles the classic tragedy during a four-weekend run

THEATER PREVIEW

It technically might not be summer quite yet, but Woodward Shakespeare Festival is heating things up with its first production of the season. “Othello” opens 8 p.m. Thursday, June 14, and continues Thursday-Saturdays through July 7. And it’s free!

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LaVon Jean-Pierre and Alexis Elisa Macedo star in “Othello.” Photo / Woodward Shakespeare Festival

Here are 5 Things to Know about this new production:

1.

It’s directed by a Woodward Shakespeare veteran returning after a 10-year absence. Arlene Schulman directed “Hamlet” a decade ago. She has a postgraduate diploma from The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon and over 35 years of theatrical experience at professional and community theaters from New York to California.

“We are thrilled to be working with Arlene again,” says festival mainstay Renee Newlove.

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Revenge on the menu

An intense and cerebral “Titus Andronicus” at Woodward Shakespeare Festival skips most of the gore, to mixed results

THEATER REVIEW

How important is it for a stage production of “Titus Andronicus” to be gory?

Descriptions of recent high-profile productions in England of Shakespeare’s arguably most violent play — at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe Theatre — make it sound as if explicit brutality is the expected theatrical order of the day. These productions offered severed hands served up on silver dishes and prisoners hung upside-down with throats slit, the dripping blood collected in bowls. If you stage “Titus” without at least a few of your patrons fainting, it seems, you aren’t doing your job.

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The end is near: Joshua Taber, left, Jay Parks, Jessica Reedy and Daniel Serrano in “Titus Andronicus.”  Photo / Victor DesRoches

Director Greg Taber takes a different approach in the more restrained and introspective Woodward Shakespeare Festival production.

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A farewell ‘Titus Andronicus’

Woodward Shakespeare Festival tackles the bloody play about revenge in director Greg Taber’s last show as executive producer

THEATER PREVIEW

Greg Taber, whose dedication to Woodward Shakespeare Festival over the years has heated up half a dozen Fresno theater summers, is stepping down as executive producer after he finishes the last production of the season. For that milestone he decided to direct Shakespeare’s brutal and little performed “Titus Andronicus,” with Jay Parks in the title role. I caught up with Taber, known for his commitment to theater that nourishes the intellect, to talk a little about the play, which opens Thursday, Aug. 3.

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Revenge: Rene Ponce, left, and Jay Parks, right, who plays the title role in Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s “Titus Andronicus.” Photo / Victor DesRoches

Q: You mention in your director’s note that most people don’t know anything about “Titus Andronicus.” As you try to generate interest in your production this summer, what’s your 30-second pitch to people about the show?

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Hip hop and Shakespeare at the park

Here’s a quick pick for a worthwhile mid-week event:

Fresno Pacific University and Woodward Shakespeare Festival present a Wednesday performance of the YES! (Youth Engage Shakespeare) project at the festival stage in Woodward Park.

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Ten high school students will present scenes, dances and original material from and inspired by on Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” A highlight will be hip hop led by Fresno Pacific senior Joy Ndombeson. The project is in its fifth year. Participants meet on the FPU campus for three weeks before going to Woodward Park for dress rehearsals and the performance.

Says project director (and FPU professor) Julia Reimer: “This is something new from the Renaissance dances of the past.”

The performance is 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, on the Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage, near the Fort Washington entrance. Admission to the show is free. Entrance to Woodward Park is $5 per car.


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Shakespearean gender bender

Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s “Twelfth Night” is a fun romp, even though the play’s fluid themes of sexuality and gender can seem a little muddy

THEATER REVIEW

Music might be the “food of love,” as Shakespeare so eloquently puts it in “Twelfth Night,” but cross-dressing seems to rank up there on the list of effective aphrodisiacs, too.

Would Lady Olivia, the noblewoman who falls head over heels for Cesario, the pretty-girl-disguised-as-pretty-boy, be quite so smitten if instead of more masculine footwear “his” heels were high? Does same-sex attraction play a part? Directors and actors have toyed with the play’s fluid themes of gender, sexuality and outward appearance for centuries now.

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Work crush: Renee Newlove, left, as Viola disguised as Cesario; and Russell Noland as the Duke in Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s “Twelfth Night.” Photo / Victor Trejo

I’m not sure that Jacob Sherwood, who directs a fun and often accomplished production of “Twelfth Night” for Woodward Shakespeare Festival, has a strong point of view on the mixed-up-sexes approach of the play, other than to just sort of toss everyone into the pool and create a lot of good-natured splashing. Viola (the heroine’s real name) disguising herself as a man is written into the play, of course. (And in Shakespeare’s time, with boys playing women roles, there would already have been a sense of gender-bending for the audience.)

Then Sherwood adds a couple of more jaunty twists: Sebastian, who is Viola’s twin brother, is played by a woman in this production. And so is Antonio, Sebastian’s male friend, though the pronouns in the text referring to the character are switched to “she.” (The homoerotic underpinnings of Sebastian and Antonio’s relationship have been thoroughly examined by scholars.) Is casting two women in these roles supposed to be gender-blind casting that the audience simply absorbs and then ignores, or is it a commentary on the cross-dressing shenanigans Shakespeare wrote into the play? It’s a bit much to keep track of, and I’m not convinced it’s worthwhile trying. My head started to hurt.

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Pranks and passion in the park

Woodward Shakespeare Festival kicks off its season Thursday with Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night,’ directed by Jacob Sherwood

THEATER PREVIEW

All you need is love in “Twelfth Night,” one of Shakespeare’s most adored comic romps. For Jacob Sherwood, director of the new Woodward Shakespeare Festival production, his adoration of the play comes in many forms: love of the text, love of the themes, and love of the mistaken identities, pranks and mischief. And, best of all, love of his wife, whom he cast in the show in a key role.

“During rehearsals she sees me only as a director and not a husband,” he says of Sarah. “She’s even teased me for flirting with her during rehearsals!”

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Gender bending: Renee Newlove as Viola and Kristel Kranz as Olivia in the Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of ‘Twelfth Night.’ Photos / Emily Harley

I caught up with Sherwood to talk about the production, which opens Thursday, June 15, and runs Thursdays-Saturdays through July 8.

Q: For those who aren’t familiar with the plot of “Twelfth Night,” give us a brief synopsis.

A: The plot moves rather quickly as we follow two main storylines. The first is the story of a shipwrecked twin, Viola, who disguises herself as a boy and serves the local Duke, falls in love with him but must complete all instructions he gives her, which includes convincing the local countess, Olivia, to marry the duke. Quite the internal conflict. Not to mention the confusion when Viola’s identical twin brother strolls into town. Our second story is that Olivia’s uncle teaming up with Olivia’s chamber maid and deciding to pull the prank of all pranks on the head servant (and rather rude fellow), Malvolio, all the while falling in love with each other during the process.

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