By Brian D’Ambrosio, for the Helena Tourism Alliance
Grandstreet Theatre’s Upcoming Productions
It’s Shakespeare with a stroke of Sondheim, a stylish pairing of classic with contemporary as Grandstreet Theatre experiments with alternating production dates of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Into the Woods.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens October 2 and runs through October 29. Into the Woods opens October 9 and ends November 1.
William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the most popular plays in the history of the performing arts, shares the set with Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a thrilling, ardent journey into four familiarfairy tales. Why blend performances, or as they say in the theatre world, “run in rep?”
“I believe that the two have similar sensibilities, even though they are entirely different,” said Kal Poole, managing director at Grandstreet Theatre. “They both embrace magic, they have young lover kinds of characters and magical creatures. By using the same set we take some of the work off of our small team here, and it gives the actors, who do a tremendous amount of work, a bit of a break and a little more time off, and we get to something different for us.
“The scenic turnaround is very challenging for us and it’s a fast turnaround from a big show to a big show. Here, we have two that can coexist in the same interior environment.”
“They are both dramatic masterpieces,” said Jeff Downing, artistic director at Grandstreet Theatre, and director of Into the Woods. “I believe that Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is the equivalent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They both share a cleverness and depth of language, with lyrics that are vast and thick. I believe the similarities made it the right choice.
“There is not a lot of changeover between the sets. We are not taking a literal approach to Into the Woods. It’s more suggestive than literal.”
Approximately 160 people auditioned for the roughly 29 combined parts (17 roles in Into the Woods and 12 parts in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) Some auditioned hoping for a specific part in a specific production, while others auditioned hoping to land a part in either or. Another option briefly entertained was the idea of casting the same actor or actress in both.
“We dropped that idea,” said Downing, “because it would have made scheduling a nightmare, and because there was such a great turnout, and with so many great people looking for parts, we didn’t feel like excluding people. In the end, we just ran out of things to offer. Both shows got what they needed and wanted, and we are not scrambling.
Into the Woods
As in any gripping fairy tale, Into the Woods becomes more engaging as emotional realities burst through the fantastical plot. The fairy tales entangled in James Lapine’s book are well-known, but here we see these craving, proud, striking, kindly, foolish and dangerous characters in a new light as they cross paths in the forest. A narrator tells the story of a baker and his wife who yearn for a child, Cinderella, who longs to go to the ball, and Jack, who wishes to keep the cow he’s told to sell. A witch tells the couple she’ll help them become parents if they bring her four objects from the woods. The quest takes them on a journey through a serpentine storybook forest and on a collision course with the other characters in a place where “anything can happen.”
Downing said that under his direction, each character finds a weak, exposed arc under a fairy-tale persona. The couple’s agreement turns Mephistophelean as they justify deceit to get what they need; the witch brings a dramatic voice and the logical exasperation of having to deal with deceptive humans. Indeed, there are deaths, betrayals, the complex nature of love and loss, as well as the thread of taking responsibility for one’s own dealings and reminders of the things both good and cruel we forward from one generation to the next.
“Into the Woods is one of my all-time favorite productions and it speaks to me in a way that not every show does,” said Downing. “Stephen Sondheim connects with so many themes that are universal. It’s unique. It is its own genre. It is so well written and so well constructed.
“Sondheim does an amazing job showing characters thinking through the aftermath of an event. With Jack, Cinderella, and others, you see the thought process and decision making as more theatrical than the event. You also see the universal themes of growing up, dealing with loss, and a little bit of comedy, wit, and heart. It is hard to find a theme that is not represented.”
Downing said that one of the book and play’s intended messages resonates most strongly.
“Good people make bad decisions,” said Downing. “The witch is not black and white, the baker’s wife who had an affair is not black and white and not a bad person. It’s not simple to put labels on people and things.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare returns to Grandstreet Theatre for the first time in about 25 years. William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has elated, confounded, titillated, and transported audiences since its original Elizabethan staging. Director Jess Shoemaker stages the festive farce about the general theme of love and its complications: yearning, frustration, confusion, and marriage. A Midsummer Night’s Dream adeptly conjoins four entwined stories: the marriage of the Athenian Duke Theseus to the Amazon Queen Hippolyta; the warring Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies; the wacky follies of four lovers in a forest; and the comically heartfelt efforts of a group of working men to stage “a love-play” for the royal wedding.
Poole said that the production will not be your great-great-grandfather’s Shakespeare.
“Director Jess Shoemaker has done an amazing job to make the sound understandable and make it contemporary sounding,” said Poole. “A lot of people have a bias to Shakespeare and they don’t like it. Jess has done a great job making it natural to the ear and bringing out a contemporary sound.”
Ultimately, Poole said that despite their generational differences he believes that the pairing will go together and balance smoothly to create an unforgettable month of drama, acting and amusement.
“We always say that Grandstreet Theatre is a small theatre that does big work,” said Poole. “We can do two shows on one stage, and we can do it without compromising the art.”
For more information, visit www.grandstreetheatre.com