By Telly Halkias
If you’re in the mood for Shakespeare this summer, you won’t have to look too hard to find a venue producing the Bard of Avon’s tales.
Shakespeare in the Woods, Manchester, Vt.
Katharine Maness has been acting as long as she can remember. She took the theatrical bug with her from Vermont to New York City for more than a dozen years before the pull of the Green Mountains and her native Pawlet, Vt., found her coming back home to realize a long-held theatrical dream whose time had finally arrived.
Maness, the founding artistic director of the region’s newest Shakespeare festival, Shakespeare in the Woods, now works morning and night in preparation for her company’s inaugural season, which kicks off later in the summer. She laughed when recalling how Vermont-like a story her final impetus was for moving ahead with the project:
“Leave it to a local farmer to spur me on,” Maness said in a recent interview at her office, where theater books were strewn around her laptop computer. “I’ve had this idea for quite some time, and shared it with my farmer friend. The reply? ‘That sounds great. When’s it happening?’ ”
Maness did not have a good answer at the time. So, she started thinking about it seriously, which led to fine-tuning a project proposal and taking the plunge.
The concept of the festival, Maness said, was to put on “classical plays through a modern lens that allows in-depth conversations about current society.” This would include a multitude of social and other issues that have become hot-button topics in everyday life.
“I’ve always gravitated towards material that feels like it has something to say, something to contribute to the collective dialogue, and I’ve always loved Shakespeare,” she said. “It’s the perfect vehicle for fostering timely dialogue, because not only are the plays constantly relevant, but everyone has had some sort of personal experience with the material at some point in their life.”
The inaugural season, which saw cast and crews beginning to arrive in Vermont in late June, is held outdoors. The campaign’s three shows will consist of “Much Ado About Nothing,” Aug. 22 – 25, “Romeo and Juliet,” Aug. 29 – Sept.1, and “The Taming of the Shrew,” Sept. 5- 8, with all performances being held at 7 p.m., on the lawn at Northshire Civic Center – Riley Rink at Hunter Park in Manchester.
“We have a seating capacity of 100 audience members per show,” Maness said. “All shows are modern interpretations, as we are defining ourselves as an unconventional, outdoor classical theater festival.’”
The community’s response, she said, has been “tremendous” and that she hoped audiences will “leave in discussion, with themselves or others, feeling like they’ve had a full, enriching, humanistic experience.”
The plays were chosen as Maness shaped the overarching theme she wanted to tackle over the course of the season: how society does and does not listen to woman-identifying voices. In that vein, Maness said that “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Taming of the Shrew” “almost act as bookends in this regard, as you have opposite ends of how the male characters interact with and, ultimately, listen to the woman characters.”
“I want audience members whose identities they don’t usually get to see onstage reflected back at them,” Maness said. “Representation matters, exceedingly so in small towns, and I’m excited for people to discover familiarity right there in front of them when the shows start.”
Pittsfield Shakespeare in the Park, Pittsfield, Mass.
Heading south into the Berkshires, you’ll find a recently-hewn jewel of Shakespeare that can be hit or miss, depending on the year. This year, it’s a go all the way as Pittsfield Shakespeare in the Park is back for its fifth season, having taken a strategic hiatus in 2018.
The brainchild of local theater producer and educator Enrico Spada, he said what makes this outdoor theater unique among regional Shakespeare stages is that it’s free of change to the audience, and as such focuses on staging one show per season, cast entirely from locals.
Past seasons have seen Pittsfield Shakespeare in the Park produce “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2014, “Romeo and Juliet” in 2015, “The Tempest” in 2016 and “Twelfth Night” in 2017.
This year’s production, “Much Ado About Nothing,” running Aug. 15-25 and featuring eight to 10 actors in double roles, will be directed by Maizy Broderick Scarpa at the First Street Common.
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass.
Just look at this company’s name and you’ll know that when it comes to Shakespeare in this region, Shakespeare & Company leads the way with big shows, big names, big crowds and a big season — all stemming from a big vision.
Unlike its northern upstarts in Manchester and Pittsfield, that vision was born in 1978, when Tina Packer founded the venerable stage. Since then, it has grown into one of the nation’s most respected regional companies, as well as a training center for acting. Today, Allyn Burrows leads the company as artistic director.
At its core remains the unique connection to its name. While its annual theater season is a full, diverse stage offering, a core number of Shakespeare works continue to anchor it.
The 2019 season, which runs through October, includes Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” July 2–Aug. 4, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Aug. 8–Sept. 1, “The Taming of the Shrew,” July 9–Aug. 17, and a special workshop production of “Coriolanus,” Aug. 21-25.
The company’s contemporary offerings include the Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Waverly Gallery,” the Tony Award-nominated play “The Children,” Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog” and “Time Stands Still” by Obie Award winner Donald Margulies.
While summing up another dynamic year at Shakespeare & Company, perhaps Burrows ended up speaking for all of the area’s Shakespeare champions
“The strings of your heart are sure to be stretched in every direction with the wide array of plays on our stages this summer,” he said. •
Telly Halkias is a national award-winning, independent journalist. He lives and writes from his homes in Southern Vermont and coastal Maine.