Sunday, February 22, 2004

Theater aims at love and war

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer


These are the best of times and the worst of times, says Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips. The kind of times that make for great theater - the big stories and issues that "you can't see on TV."

As Cincinnati Shakespeare approaches its 10th anniversary celebration in April, Phillips is three months into his job and laying out the plan for the next 10 years.

The festival's 2004-05 season is dominated by Shakespeare and, for the first time, carries a theme: "In Love and War."

Phillips, a big music fan, confesses that concept albums inspired the idea of a themed season for the festival.

"For the last three years, we've been living in a time of war and uncertainty. This is the story I want to tell. We can have this conversation through the classics, with the universal truths in these shows."

This is how the season tracks: Love's Labours Lost (Sept. 9-Oct. 3) is a prelude to war. It will be set in the late '60s, the era of Vietnam and the Beatles, and by the end, war is declared. Ultimately, muses Phillips, it is a bittersweet romance about innocence lost.

The festival then moves to the home front with Arthur Miller's All My Sons, a mid-20th century American drama about a family that has bought its good life from war profiteering.

After a holiday break, come "the A side and B side" - Henry V (Jan. 6-30) and Troilus and Cressida (Feb. 17-March 6). Henry V is, of course, the play in which Shakespeare's beloved Prince Hal grows into a hero, building weary soldiers into a band of brothers with some of the most stirringly patriotic words ever spoken.

Troilus "is about two people falling in love in the middle of a war and being pulled apart." Much Ado About Nothing, that witty and ever-popular battle of the sexes, is set in the post-war. At Cincinnati Shakespeare, the boys will be marching home from WWII, underscored by the swing music of the '40s.

Phillips' questions aren't just about war but about its effect on America today. "What are our kids graduating into? Where are we going?"

The season will close with Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which, Phillips observes, is "love as war - marriage and family life is the battlefield."

The festival, giving birth to the Cincinnati Fringe Festival as its final production slot this season (in May), will leave the fringe to survive on its own. It's nowhere in Cincinnati Shakespeare's plans.

Next season shows a clear re-commitment to the classics. Phillips has been with the theater for five years, first as a member of the acting company and, for the last year, as associate artistic director.

What he's learned as he's worked with and observed the festival's first two artistic directors Jasson Minadakis and Nick Rose, is that "if you're a Shakespeare festival, you do Shakespeare."

Phillips believes that in the last year, with titles including major Shakespearian comedies and popular tragedies Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, "we've gotten a lot of people back."

One of the festival's great challenges will be that it has always been far better at contemporary works than at the classics. Phillips expects that to be addressed, at least in part, through directing, the return of Equity guest contracts and hanging onto some graduates of its Young Company. Casting will be announced in April.

"We're growing up," Phillips grins ruefully. "We're hitting our 30s. I think we're going to surprise people. I'm very excited."

In future seasons, he adds, expect the festival to expand into world classics. "We have hundreds of years of drama to form the palette to paint whatever stories we want to tell."

The 2004-05 Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival season:

Love's Labours Lost, Sept. 9-Oct. 3

All My Sons, Oct. 21-Nov. 14

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, Dec. 1-23

Henry V, Jan. 6-30

Troilus and Cressida, Feb. 17-March 6

Much Ado About Nothing, March 24-April 17

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, May 5-29.

The Festival is at 719 Race St., downtown. Subscriptions, $96-$120, are on sale. Single tickets ($20, $18 seniors, $16 students) will go on sale in August. For information call the box office at 381-2273.

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