Bicentennial Bard

Illinois Shakespeare Festival celebrates 40th anniversary in Land of Lincoln

 Quetta Carpenter, Steven Young, and Dee Dee Batteast star in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," reconsidered as "The Housewives of Normal, Ill." (Illinois Shakespeare Festival/Steven Smedley)

Quetta Carpenter, Steven Young, and Dee Dee Batteast star in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," reconsidered as "The Housewives of Normal, Ill." (Illinois Shakespeare Festival/Steven Smedley)

By Ted Cox

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary this weekend in suitable fashion with the jovial Falstaff leading "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

According to William Prenevost, managing director of the festival, it brings William Shakespeare's bawdy comedy into the present day by imagining it as something of a reality-TV installment of "The Housewives of Normal, Ill."

"It's very farcical," Prevenost said Thursday after the preview performance was rained out at the Ewing Theater on the elegant manor grounds at 48 Sunset Road in Bloomington. "It's an interesting twist to it."

It's one of three plays featured in the 41st season, along with Shakespeare's "Henry V" and the original stage version of Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's knockoff "Shakespeare in Love," adapted by Lee Hal.

"Henry the V" also has a topical element. "With a lot of Shakespeare's history plays, they're relevant in all times," Prenevost said. "If you think about what's happening with our leadership today — and the kind of casual discussion about, yeah, we'll go in and invade Venezuela or wherever it might be — going into wars and conquering other lands is always a contemporary issue."

"Shakespeare in Love," meanwhile, finds the fest moving indoors for the first time at the Center for the Performing Arts Theater, 400 W. Beaufort St. on the Illinois State University campus.

"That was a strategic move for a couple of different reasons," Prenevost said. For one, it gives people security that they can book ahead without worrying about the weather being stormy or too hot. That also lends itself to bus groups booking from outside the immediate area.

"Merry Wives" kicks things off this weekend with the fest's formal opening Friday night, followed by "Henry V" next weekend, July 12 through 14, and "Shakespeare in Love" the following weekend, July 19 through 22. A rotating repertory schedule gives the fest an extended coda from July 24 through Aug. 10. Tickets are available at IllinoisShakes.com, ranging from $20 to $54 for single plays, $40 to $109 for season tickets.

Chicago’s Improvised Shakespeare Company returns for three comedic "made-up plays" inspired by suggestions from the audience, also indoors at the Center for the Performing Arts. Those three performances are set for July 8 and 25 and Aug. 8, with general seating $18.

The fest's 40th anniversary also lines up with the Illinois bicentennial, so Prenevost had the bright idea to hold a symposium on President Abraham Lincoln's fondness for the bard (his favorite play is said to have been "Macbeth") under the theme "Shakespeare in the Land of Lincoln." Michael Anderegg, author of the 2015 book "Lincoln and Shakespeare," is the spotlight speaker at 4 p.m. July 21. James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection at the Presidential Library in Springfield, speaks at 2 p.m. July 14, later followed by Lincoln scholar Guy Fraker at 2 p.m. July 28, and Robert Bray, author of "Reading With Lincoln," at 2 p.m. Aug. 4 — all in the Ewing Manor adjacent to the theater, and all free, with reservations recommended through the fest website.

 Shakespeare fans enter the theater behind Ewing Manor. (Illinois Shakespeare Festival/Steven Smedley)

Shakespeare fans enter the theater behind Ewing Manor. (Illinois Shakespeare Festival/Steven Smedley)

The elegant Ewing Manor and the outdoor theater remain the focal point of the festival in its 41st season. Prenevost, who attended ISU in the theater department with some of the actors who'd go on to form the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, recalled taking part in a performance of the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet" in the Ewing Manor courtyard a couple of years before the fest formally began in 1978.

"So we were already starting to do things out there for Shakespeare," Prenevost said. The fest began, he recalled, with "a temporary stage. So they just laid down platforms and put up a bleacher-type seating along with folding chairs. So it was very, very primitive at the beginning."

From those humble origins, though, it now welcomes more than 10,000 people a year, with the outdoor theater behind the Ewing Manor the festival centerpiece, bringing the atmosphere of Shakespeare's Globe Theater into the present day.

Ted Cox