The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is Marking their 20th Anniversary Season with Two Plays in Rotating Repertory
Text by Kellie Houx
Photo by Brad Austin
All Other Photography Contributed by the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival
Special Thanks to:
Sidonie Garrett, Executive Artistic Director
Mary Traylor, costumes/styling
Tabatha Treml, makeup/styling
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Toward the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus tells an assembled group that “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.” For the 20th season of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, the creativity and the imagination of playwright William Shakespeare in the hands of veteran actors will be double the joy as the festival group stages two shows in rotating repertory. The popular comedy of Midsummer Night’s Dream will be paired with the historical tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, a play never performed as part of the festival.
Many familiar actors and actresses, many with strong ties to Kansas City’s stages and the festival, will return this summer. Kansas City Actors Theatre President John Rensenhouse, who played the lead role in last year’s show of Macbeth, rejoins with Kim Martin-Cotten, who studied theater at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and played Lady Macbeth, as they resume their stage relationship with the title roles of Antony and Cleopatra. Rensenhouse will also play Oberon, the king of the fairies and Martin-Cotten will be Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA AND A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
For more than three years, Artistic Director Sidonie Garrett knew she wanted to offer up the little known historic tragedy. With Martin-Cotten and Rensenhouse, she knew she had the right combination of actors. “The strength is a love story. Cleopatra was a woman of great intelligence who spoke something like seven languages. Antony and Cleopatra’s story is a huge story in antiquity as their two nations Egypt and Rome clashed.”
Rensenhouse, during the mid-1980s, played the younger, more idealistic Marc Antony in Julius Caesar before coming to the festival to play Caesar in 2004. He now will play the more mature war veteran Antony in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
“His first care is not about conquering lands, but his relationship with Cleopatra. This Antony is ready to forgo ruling and warfare; he is really in love with Cleopatra. He even offers the thought that kingdoms are clay, but the real importance is time together. He appreciates this. He may seem indulgent and boyish, however the warrior-leader has given his time to country. He has been fettered with the responsibilities of the world for years and reconnects with the desires of a mature man,” Rensenhouse says.
Rensenhouse says Antony and Cleopatra is not a Shakespearean play that is performed often. “The language may seem denser than Macbeth.” He also looks forward to playing opposite his stage wife last year, Martin-Cotten. “We have a relationship as actors and friends. We are also well matched in height.” His Titania will be actress Jan Rogge.
Rogge, an accomplished actress with past performances at the Unicorn and the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, is also celebrating an anniversary with the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. This is her 10th season. Her role is that of the Soothsayer in Antony and Cleopatra and Titania, queen of the fairies, once again, after the shows decade-long hiatus.
Bruce Roach, who has played many characters in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival plays, will take on the roles of Enobarbus, Antony’s best friend and counsel, in Antony & Cleopatra and Peter Quince, a comedic carpenter in ancient Athens, in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Cinnamon Schultz Paulette is another familiar face at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. She’s taken on roles such as Lady Anne in Richard III, Bianca in Taming of the Shrew, Olivia in Twelfth Night, and Juliet in Measure for Measure. This year, she is playing Octavia and Charmian in Anthony and Cleopatra and Head Fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Matt Rapport has been with the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival for 19 of the 20 seasons. He played Benevolio in 2007’s Romeo & Juliet. He has been in the two previous performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1994 and 2002. This year, he gets to take on the role of Nick Bottom, the weaver who ends up with an ass-headed transformation. For Antony and Cleopatra, he will be Agrippa, the military commander and advisor of Octavian and several smaller roles. “Bottom is definitely a dream role for me. I am thrilled,” he says.
Garrett is excited to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time. “It’s been 10 years since we have performed Midsummer. It’s light and funny for a whole new generation,” Garrett says. Her assistant director is actor Todd Lanker, a festival veteran having performed the roles of Paris in Romeo and Juliet and Roderigo in Othello.
IMPORTANCE OF ROTATING REPERTORY
For the actors and for director Garrett, the idea to pair two divergent plays is so important, especially with the anniversary year. The festival group had a major benefactor, the John C. Griswold Foundation, to come along and help fund the two plays. The plays will be performed every other night from June 19 through July 15 in Southmoreland Park.
Other cast members include David Fritts, Jason Chanos, Robert Gibby-Brand, Jacques Roy, TJ Chasteen, Andrea Guertsen, Phillip Shinn, Daniel Fredrick and Greg Brostrom playing multiple roles. Actors making their festival debut are Emily Peterson, J. Will Fritz, Ben Auxier and Logan Black. Several children, tweens and teen actors will complete the cast of 26.
“These actors have a working vocabulary of Shakespeare. Many of them have been with me for years. They will be pushed harder. They don’t have to learn how to function on the stage at Southmoreland Park. Many of them have also carried leads or supporting roles that are substantial. I have confidence and I believe they will as well,” Garrett says.
FINDING AN APPRECIATION FOR SHAKESPEARE
Some of the actors talked about the language of Shakespeare. It can be a barrier for an audience. None of them want audience members to be intimidated by the language because the job to interpret falls to the actors. Schultz-Paulette says an actor needs all the same skills as with any production, “but with a great understanding of what it is you’re saying and of course the ability to translate it to the audience.” Rogge says actors need to make sense of the text to bring the characters alive. “And then you can start making character choices with your voice, speech, body, emotion and intelligence.”
Rapport says an actor needs to be open to the material. “I have always found that if you approach the material with as few preconceived notions as possible and with open ears and eyes so to speak, the story shows itself to you whether you understand all the arcane language or not,” he says. “Of course you also need to do your homework and find out exactly what you’re saying and how to say it in a way that is intelligible. But that’s something you do no matter when the play was written. Shakespeare can just be a little more difficult to access than a modern play.”
Audiences do not need to understand Shakespeare, says Rensenhouse. Antony and Cleopatra was written more than 400 years ago, “An audience has to have the willingness to listen and engage themselves in the play. You don’t have to understand each and every word. Shakespeare was good at repeating ideas. The trick is to enjoy and appreciate the poetic feeling. To follow along a little better, it might be OK to read the play synopsis,” he says. As an actor, Rensenhouse hopes that his fellow actors and he capture that poetic height and nature while offering an audience an understanding of the human experience each and every character has. “Antony and Cleopatra is a love story. While there is poetry, Shakespeare doesn’t need to be put on a pedestal.”
Roach takes a little different approach. “A certain facility with language, for sure, and a good sense of humor, is needed. Even the tragedies are full of wonderful comedy and irony. Oh, and a pair of good knees. There’s a lot of kneeling in Shakespeare’s plays.”
Garrett says the majority of the cast has played on the stage at Southmoreland Park. She knows that after the rehearsals and when they move the rehearsals to the stage, she counts on the actors and actresses that have a history with the festival. “You also need a certain amount of stamina physically and vocally that is not always required in modern theater. And performing outside brings many challenges. Bugs, heat, rain, the need for a ‘bigger’ performance due to the size of the venue, and many other variables not found in ‘indoor’ theater.”
With the 20th anniversary season, the decision to stage two Shakespearean plays just seemed right, Garrett says. The group performed two shows in rotating repertory from 1998 to 2002. The actors are excited about returning to this concept.
“I enjoy doing the rotating rep. Doing two shows tends to make both shows feel fresher since we will be alternating night to night. Not to mention it is a great work out as an actor to be able to stretch out and play a variety of roles in two very different plays. And the festival always engenders a very strong community feeling for me. It’s almost like getting to go to a really »» fun family reunion every summer. I truly love being part of bringing free Shakespeare to Kansas City,” Rapport says. He also serves as a teacher for the camps and year-round programs. “I mean 20 years of free Shakespeare here in KC is a pretty big deal I think. I know I’m looking forward to having some serious fun in the shows this year. Particularly in Midsummer, but I’m also excited about Antony and Cleopatra as this will be my first time to do the play, and we’ve never done it at the festival before. A new challenge is always welcome.”
Founder Marilyn Strauss still remembers that conversation with legendary producer and director Joseph Papp encouraging Strauss to create a free festival. He also set forth the groundwork in New York that a Shakespearean festival should feature professional actors, but remain free to the public. “He always believed and encouraged that we keep it free, keep it professional and keep it outdoors. I know it sounds almost exaggerated, but there is more satisfaction and more feeling that I have done something lasting than any Broadway play. This is my legacy,” Strauss says. l