In its eight-year tenure, North Texas’ Trinity Shakespeare Festival has presented highly imaginative, visually splendid, superbly cast and textually sound productions of dual works in a short summer repertory season. 2017 ushers in the Festival for its 9th year (June 13 – July 2) with a unique pairing of two of the Bard’s most challenging plays, an early work, Richard III, and the later “problem” play, Measure for Measure. Not only do these works feature two of Shakespeare’s most celebrated, heinous villains (Richard III and Angelo), they share an intriguing juxtaposition of complementary themes: power’s abuse, intemperate lust, the capacity to do evil at any cost. Whether you’re a hardcore Trinity Shakes fan or a curious novice, buckle your seatbelt snugly when you settle into your seat at the two Texas Christian University campus venues in Fort Worth; you’re about to take an unforgettable, intimate ride into the darkest depths of the human psyche with chilling, dramatic impact.
Selecting seasons presents a complex challenge to Festival Artistic Director and TCU theatre professor Thomas J. (TJ) Walsh. “This is the first year with so much overlap in thematic material, an unintentional but fascinating result of the pairing. At Trinity we believe in serving the art and the audience first. Our first criterion in selecting plays is will the two plays interest, amuse and illuminate our audiences and allow our creative teams to do justice to Shakespeare. Secondarily, since we employ one cast, 25-30 people drawn from our university program, local talent, regional professionals and national touring artists, we must choose shows with strong casting overlap potential. We have an extremely intense rehearsal period of three weeks, an immersion experience, so an actor carrying a major lead in one show will generally play a much smaller role, or roles, in the other one. It’s a grueling pace for all; we try to respect the endurance and capabilities of every artist involved, designers and actors, alike.” Walsh directs Measure For Measure this year. He says he is drawn to the “problem” plays, like last year’s triumphant The Winter’s Tale. He resonates with their melancholic, romantic portrayals of the tragedy inherent to humanity. He enjoys exploring and solving the “problems” through careful text interpretation and honest, detailed character arc development. “If you can help audience members get into the psyche and motivations of a dastardly, murderous character like Richard or a rigidly uncompromising, lust-driven cleric like Angelo, maybe they will better understand the full range of human expression and emotion and recognize destructive tendencies within themselves? These are badly flawed characters, acting in ways most people would never dream of. Still, they aren’t caricature “bad guys”, to be portrayed as overblown, stereotypically evil. They are human beings.”
Returning to direct at Trinity Shakespeare Festival in 2017 for the sixth time, Stephen Brown-Fried, considered one of the US’ leading directors of Shakespeare, embraces the challenge of directing Richard III in the round at the black box-style Hayes Theatre with enthusiasm. “I’ve worked a lot with top national professional actor/director and fellow Yale grad Blake Hackler over the years. When I offered him the role of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Trinity in 2016, he broached the subject of my directing him in Richard III. I loved the idea, and we approached TJ with it. Trinity offers a splendid opportunity to delve into this complex work in a way that allows us to show the dynamics and depth of Richard’s motivations and his descent into murder as a path to power with an unexpected level of intimacy. Working in the round enhances the possibilities. There exists such a spirit of collaboration among the artists at Trinity, from the actors to the designers, so much trust and dedication, that the challenge of making this harsh play accessible and human doesn’t daunt me at all. Blake Hackler is a consummate professional. He comes to the role of Richard so prepared to dive deep, so researched, so imaginative and open to collaborative creation…he is the finest role model we have in the company for the young artists just beginning their careers.” Brown-Fried can’t praise his cast enough. “Lynn Blackburn joins us for the first time this year, playing Elizabeth in Richard III. Her character has seen everyone she cares about murdered. Through the losses she finds the inner strength to take on the one person responsible, Richard. Blackburn inhabits Elizabeth with skill and courage; a fine match for Hackler in performance, she reveals the potency of a strong woman standing up to an unimaginably corrupt, powerful man. At Trinity we get to fully examine and live the range of human experience within the universal, timeless works of William Shakespeare.”
Dallas, Texas native and professional actor Montgomery Sutton plays in Shakespeare productions across the US and UK, yet he delights in returning home to join the Trinity Shakespeare ensemble when so invited. This year Sutton takes on the demanding challenge of playing the scheming murderer and sexual predator Angelo in Measure For Measure. He enjoys playing villains (he was Edmund in 2015’s King Lear) and first encountered Angelo in a production he saw as a high school junior. “It was the first time I broke through the paradigm of seeing Shakespeare as an academic exercise and reacted to a character on a personal, visceral level.” Sutton finds investigating the hideous journey Angelo takes him on both challenging and illuminating. “Angelo begins as a sort of conservative revolutionary bent on rigid enforcement of the law yet finds himself vulnerable to temptation and drawn to commit horrific acts of evil in its pursuit. What motivates this descent, as intelligent as he is and consumed with self-loathing for his misdeeds as he is? He is a man who loses all moral compass with an enormous amount of self-awareness of consequences.” Sutton relishes the full experience of playing in both productions, for the exercise of contrasting styles it presents. He finds the literary restraint of Richard III, the early play, akin to ballet; while the wild and free cadences of the later play, Measure For Measure, feel more like jazz riffs and possess a David Mamet-like modernity. “We rehearse both shows concurrently. It’s an inspirational challenge and an invaluable acting lesson to inhabit the reality and style of Richard III in one rehearsal room then to step across the hall to switch gears with full commitment to character and language style in Measure For Measure. Audiences will see us perform the plays as discrete, unified entities. We actors have gone through a combined rehearsal process that has emphasized the veracity of the moment, character truth and careful attention to the differences in linguistic style and cadence between early and late Shakespeare, switched back and forth throughout the days of rehearsal as fast as you can snap your fingers.”
At Texas’ Trinity Shakespeare Festival, you won’t find modern dress productions. Walsh believes that period costuming frees the imaginations of his audiences. You won’t find overt political comparison to modern eras. Walsh believes Shakespeare’s plays speak to the universal human condition, and it’s up to an audience to discover resonances for today.
You will find air conditioning and impeccable production value in sets, costumes and lighting, reinforcing the style, themes and text of the plays. You will find an intimacy of performance in the two theatres that seat c. 180 patrons, each. You will find actors sharing with the audience, inviting the audience into the life experience portrayed rather than reciting speeches in faux British accents or “acting at” the audience. You will find resonant truth in the art performed. It may take your breath away. I invite you to attend the 2017 Trinity Shakespeare Festival in Fort Worth, Texas.
Tickets are now on sale for the ninth season of Trinity Shakespeare Festival, which will present Richard III and Measure for Measure in repertory June 13-July 2. Performances of Richard III take place in the Marlene and Spencer Hays Theatre and performances of Measure for Measure in the Jerita Foley Buschman Theatre, both in Ed Landreth Hall, 2800 S. University Dr. on the Texas Christian University campus in Fort Worth. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. each evening, with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sundays. Tickets are $15 for students, $25 for adults and $20 for seniors (60 and older), and may be purchased at http://www.trinityshakes.org or (817) 257-8080.
A version of this feature article appears on TheaterJones.com