Shakespeare in the Park gets underway on Friday

BY ELLE WIGNALL | JUNE 14, 2012 6:30 AM

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It has been more than 400 years since William Shakespeare's plays first lit up the London stage, and they still bring magic to stages all over the world.

That magic will return to the Riverside Festival Stage in Lower City Park for season 13 of Riverside's Shakespeare Festival in the Park, which will take place Friday through July 8.

Riverside Theater expects to enchant large summer crowds with its productions of Shakespeare's As You Like It, directed by Theodore Swetz, and The Merchant of Venice, directed by Kristin Horton.

Jody Hovland, a founder of and an artistic director at Riverside Theater, said the two plays are a pairing that explore different sides of the emotional spectrum.

"The Merchant of Venice raises very uncomfortable questions about prejudice, love, and loyalty — and refuses to settle for easy answers," Hovland said in an email to The Daily Iowan. "As You Like It, on the other hand, is a play about healing and the transformative power of love. Thematically, one is the answer to the other."

Riverside Theater actors and scholars alike agree that the thematic elements of Shakespeare's works make them universally read, performed, and loved.

"[Shakespeare's plays are] uniting and completely energizing in a way that I think modern plays have to struggle for," said Ron Clark, the other founder of Riverside Theater. "We love to see people who are sharing the struggles, the victories, and the absolute deepest, deepest human relations we all share. All of those things that make us human — we love to watch it on stage."

Audience members are intrigued by a "look, that's me" dynamic that Shakespeare's plays illuminate, Clark said.

"We are fascinated with seeing ourselves on stage," he said.

Iowa City plays host to several summer festivals that display the work of modern and local artists and writers, and still, Riverside's Shakespeare performances are relevant and important to the community.

"As far as Iowa City goes, I think because of the history of Shakespeare, he often served as a symbol of literary culture and its importance to us; it reaffirms our commitment to literary culture that thrives here," Assistant English Professor Adam Hooks said.

Swetz, an actor in addition to being the director of As You Like It, said audience members needn't bring anything but their experiences to enjoy the Shakespeare Festival.

Shakespeare will continue to be both ancient and modern, and Riverside is excited to tell his stories in the clearest way possible for audience members of all ages to experience, Hovland said.

Children and adults alike enjoy Shakespeare, Clark said.

"We are the incredible, complicated creatures that he understood," he said.

The evening performances of both shows will be prefaced with an original story theater version of the night's play performed by Riverside Theater's Apprentice Company.

Actors with varying backgrounds and experience levels from all over the country travel to Iowa City to make up the full Acting Company, Swetz said.

"It's a wonderful, diverse age and experience of actors that come together," he said.

The actors are excited to bring the plays to life in the natural setting that many of Shakespeare's works are set in on the Festival Stage.

"The thing that I think about performing outdoors, in the evening especially, it does become very communal with nature," Swetz said. "It's kind of miraculous because we start playing in full daylight, and by the time of admission, it's dusk or dark."

Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed in nature, Clark said.

"It's really magical in a way it's hard to describe," he said.

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