Shakespeare festival “hungry” for other classics


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It was a beautiful day. People were out and about.

The chirping birds were not enough to drown out the constant drumming or the playful music coming from the humble stage nestled in Lower City Park.

Four men stood on the downstage platform, and, with the toot of a pitch pipe, broke into song for the beginning of the comedic play Ah, Wilderness!.

Yet just minutes before the staged was used to choreograph an intense fight scene of a different comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Rehearsal on June 11 was in preparation for the annual Riverside Theater Shakespeare Festival. This year, Shakespeare’s words will be celebrated — with a twist.

The Bard’s classic comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona is scheduled as the second production to début for the festival. But for only the second time in its 12 years, the company will produce a non-Shakespearean play, Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!.

“We have plunged into the 20th-century classics,” said Jody Hovland, a Riverside Theater artistic director. “There are so many that we are hungry to do. It’s an exciting change for us.”

The company is able to balance the contrast in style because of the talent of the cast and crew and the uniting bond of comedy.

Ah, Wilderness! will première at 8 p.m. Friday at the Riverside Festival Stage in Lower City Park. Single tickets begin at $17.

Theodore Swetz, the director of the O’Neill play, said the story is a “beautiful selection” for those who don’t know a lot about theater.

Ah Wilderness! tells the story of an American family living in Connecticut in 1906. The classic play focuses on the life of teenager Richard Miller as he squares off with his family and manages a love affair on the Fourth of July.

“[Ah, Wilderness!] is a very particular coming-of-age story,” the 58-year-old said. “It’s O’Neill’s only comedy, which makes it very special.”

Swetz, who directed Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost for last year’s festival, is happy to work with Riverside Theatre once again.

“It’s been an absolute joy,” Swetz said. He, along with cast members, has been rehearsing in Iowa City for a month. “I have a tremendous acting company.”

Ron Clark, a founding member of the theater company, said the coming-of-age theme is key to each production.

“Both of these plays deal with young love and young people finding their way into the world,” Clark said.

The traditional Shakespeare play The Two Gentlemen of Verona will début a week after the O’Neill play, on June 24.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, first performed in the 1590s, focuses on best friends Valentine — played by Christopher Peltier — and Proteus as they meet the young women who lead them to discover love.

Peltier, 25, said glimpses of Shakespeare’s later work are often seen in the play.

“People often call it Shakespeare’s rough draft,” Peltier said.

Chicago native Cristina Panfilio, who portrays Belle in the O’Neill comedy, is in her fifth year acting for the festival. This year the 28-year-old has a dual responsibility, tackling the roles of the sultry prostitute in Ah, Wilderness!, and Julia, a lead role in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

“It’s been really fun for us,” Panfilio said. “It’s a nice contrast.”

But she is not alone; many members of the company act in both of what she called the “starkly different” plays.

Peltier, who has primarily performed in Shakespeare festivals since his graduation three years ago, also has the lead role of Richard in Ah, Wilderness! in addition to his role as Shakespeare’s protagonist.

And though both plays are comedies, they are different in tone.

“Comedy is hard,” said Clark, director of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. “Comedy requires precision and perfection.”

The cast worked hard during rehearsals, meticulously going through scenes as often and as well as possible.

On the stage again at their Thursday run-through, Peltier and cast member Zach Andrews were practicing a fight scene at half speed.

It was very careful work, measured, like a dance that must be carefully choreographed by each and every movement. In slow motion, two young men were moving back and forth across the stage, working together to produce the sounds of a full-on fight.

Andrews said they pick up the pace during an actual production.

“We ratchet up [the fight] to about 85 percent in rehearsals and let the shows bring the rest,” he said.

Reworking scenes can be painful. And Shakespeare is always challenging, Clark said.

“The challenges of this particular play is keeping it honest,” Clark said.“The characters have to be very honest, or the audience is shut out.”

Yet working with experienced directors for plays helps differentiate and distinguish their two styles.

“[Swetz] is amazing. He’s used to working with people my age,” Peltier said. “He has a great ability to communicate what’s going on with a character emotionally and how to convey that to an audience.”

As usual, the performances will take place on the Riverside Festival Stage —the circular 470-seat structure modeled after the famous Globe Theatre in London.

Having the performances outdoors also allows for more comfort and positive energy flow to be exchanged, Hovland said.

“Spending an evening at the festival is a really joyful experience,” she said. “And we hope people take advantage of this opportunity to play with us.”

Being on stage in front of a good crowd makes all the hard work worthwhile.

“When it’s good, it’s good,” she said. “When we feel the audience, it’s magical.”

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