Sunday, April 07, 2002

Status quo scares artistic director

Shakespeare schedule mixes tradition, risk

By Jackie Demaline,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Don't get too comfortable about Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. Artistic director Jasson Minadakis would prefer you'd expect the unexpected.

        Although, he says, laughing, some audience members are going to be more comfortable. The spontaneously reclining seats left over from the days when the theater housed The Movies will disappear from the first six rows at the end of the season.

        The new “Section A” will feature real theater seats, and ticket buyers will pay a couple of extra dollars for the pleasure of sitting in them. (You can test drive the seats in the lobby starting with Thursday's opening of As You Like It.)

        Don't expect to be completely comfortable with what you see on stage. Mr. Minadakis has scheduled a couple of sure-fire audiences favorites in The Complete Works of Wllm Shakspr (abridged) for summer and a much-requested return of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol for a holiday run.

        Mr. Minadakis unashamedly admits to hoping to sell Complete Works tickets on the coattails of The Reducers at Playhouse in the Park, featuring the original Reduced Shakespeare Company.

        There are a pair of the Bard's greatest hits in season opener Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet (with Brian Isaac Phillips, fresh off Nocturne) in the title role.

        But there is no such thing as a sure thing, Mr. Minadakis will tell you, and much of the rest of the season is about risk.

        The festival, entering its ninth year, will take its first run at Shakespeare's rarely performed adventure fable The Winter's Tale. Nick Rose and Marni Penning will star and Drew Fracher, who delivered a stunning Macbeth to the Human Race stage in Dayton earlier this season, will direct.

        Festival audiences adored Arcadia, and Mr. Minadakis will give them another dazzling helping of playwright Tom Stoppard with his wonderful Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It turns Hamlet inside out by putting the pair of motley supporting characters center stage and shoving the Prince of Denmark and his relatives off to the side.

        Hamlet and Rosencrantz are scheduled back to back in the season with the same cast playing the same roles. A 5 p.m. performance of Hamlet is scheduled for every Saturday during the Rosencrantz run (which follows at 9 p.m.) so the truly theater-mad can see them both on the same night.

        Mr. Minadakis has selected four contemporary works to round out the season, chosen specifically because “theater is one of the places where society can have a dialogue with itself.”

        He's prepared to start that dialogue with four provocative works:

        • Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, a recent success Off-Broadway and in Chicago, catches up with a streetwise kid caught up in New York City's prison and judicial systems.

        • Dael Orlandersmith's one-woman show The Gimmick, about growing up in East Harlem in the '60s and finding a way to move on, will play as a companion piece on Sunday through Tuesday nights, hoping to repeat Nocturne's success in the off-night slot this season.

        • Suzan-Lori Park'ssizzling In the Blood re-imagines Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic The Scarlet Letter as the contemporary drama of a welfare mother.

        • Bent is the still powerful drama of a horrifying journey forced on homosexual lovers in Nazi Germany.

        Mr. Minadakis pauses to consider his theater's lineup. “When people see the schedule,” he says slowly, considering his words, “I want them to see Cincinnati and the nation.

        “When they come and see the work, I want them to feel Cincinnati and feel the issues we're dealing with.”

        And whatever you do, don't get comfortable with Cincinnati's traditional 8 p.m. curtain time. Cincinnati Shakespeare will start performances at 7:30 p.m. next season, bowing to the early-to-bed, early-to-rise corporate culture. The festival also adds Wednesday evening performances.

        Just to keep audiences off balance, there will be a shake-up in the festival acting ensemble, as well.

        The long-standing core company is changing. “Audiences will see a lot of people they know over the course of the season, they just won't see them in every show,” Mr. Minadakis says.

        Two of the Cincinnati's best actors, Nick Rose and Brian Isaac Phillips, will continue to anchor the acting ensemble. Chris Guthrie will graduate from the Young Company and join them, but mainstays Giles Davies and Jeremy Dubin, whose electric performances helped put the festival on the city's theatrical map, will likely take advantage of some out-of-town opportunities.

        Some other outstanding locally based actors, including Sherman Fracher, Corinne Mohlenhoff, Drew Fracher and Michael Burnham, will become regulars on the festival stage, as will out-of-towners John Alcott, who dazzled in Arcadia and returns next month in The Beard of Avon, and Todd Douglas, who just completed a run in the title role of Othello.


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