Now that playhouses are cautiously opening their doors again, audiences are united in their enthusiastic welcome to live performance of every kind—musical extravaganzas, topical dramas and drag slapstick alike. For some theatergoers, however, a season just isn't a bona fide season without some SHAKESPEARE.
Fortunately, October features not one, but three, of Willie Shakes' Greatest Hits, spread out over a variety of sites to suit the geographical, budgetary and personal boundaries of each individual Iamb/Pent Infatuate.
First up is As You Like It at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier. What makes this location's panoramic views of our own inland sea especially relevant to this particular production is that guest director Daryl Cloran's original concept not only transported the period of the familiar romcom to the 1960s, replete with a score selected from the Beatles' mid-career songbook, but was configured to the landscape of a Vancouver beachfront!
No need to unpack the down jackets and fur caps yet, though. As quaint as the image of Arden Forest rising out of the marina off Lake Michigan might be, a summery Canadian seaside is a very different proposal from a midwest autumn chill (as illustrated by the sorry fate of the Skyline Stage, now the recently-converted Yard), ensuring the current production a cozy home on the temperature-controlled thrust mainstage. To be sure, Vancouver's repertory production was forced to share a set with Macbeth, recalls Cloran, but subsequent indoor remounts at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Center in Winnepeg and the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton offered opportunities to re-imagine a more compact scenic design "specific to our play—flashier, too!"
Reviews of the Vancouver run noted the incorporation of local references into the text ("Okanagan [a local hippie hangout] scans the same as Forest of Arden" Cloran observes). Chicago audiences can likewise expect some inside jokes in keeping with Elizabethan humor, but Cloran confesses that what excites him most is the WRESTLING.
"As You Like It is the only one of Shakespeare's plays to have a wrestling match in it, while the 1960s were the beginning of professional WWE as we know it." he reminds us eagerly, "Audiences entering the theater pre-show will find a match already underway, with the champion taking on a series of competitors. Be sure to arrive early!"
At the opposite end of the visual spectrum is Invictus Theatre Company's production of Hamlet, scheduled for performance at the Reginald Vaughn Theater (formerly, The Frontier). Director Charles Askenaizer, however, is undismayed at the prospect of the tiny Edgewater storefront's capability at containing a complex tale of political and family betrayals in a country suffering upheaval and corruption, following the death of its ruler and the seizing of power by his brother—a disruption propelling its citizens on a search for, says Askenaizer, "a sense of normalcy and stability in the face of uncertainty.
"Much of the play can be distilled down to the intimacy of the relationships between the characters onstage, as well as—during the soliloquies—between the characters and the audience." Askenaizer maintains, "This allows the storytelling to be streamlined rather well to a small space."
Falling somewhere between these two in term of physical scope is Court Theatre's The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, playing in the cozy auditorium on the University of Chicago's Hyde Park campus. In response to post-pandemic safety cautions, some spectators will be seated on the stage, and some in small groups with the play's action transpiring around them (an arrangement once dubbed "mosh pit" viewing).
"The goal is for theatergoers in every group to feel like they're right in the middle of the action" co-director Gabrielle Randle-Bent explains, "Nobody will experience every moment the same as anyone else"
Asked whether this applies to the stylistic ambiguities of, say, the casting of drag performer Ariana "Ari" Gato as Bianca, Randle-Bent warns against looking for an overarching thesis. "By embracing the title character's humanity, we hope to tell the story in a different way." she proclaims enigmatically, adding "We invite audiences to come and see, along with us, what is possible."
As You Like It opens at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on October 15 and runs through November 21. Details: www.ChicagoShakes.com
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice opens at Court Theatre on October 16 and runs through December 5. Details: www.CourtTheatre.org
Hamlet opens at Reginald Vaughn Theater on October 25 and runs through November 21. Details: www.InvictusTheatreCo.com
Mary Shen Barnidge