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Shakespeare Festival Doubles Down With Two Shows In Rep

This year's Heart of America Shakespeare Festivalis going back and forth between comedy and tragedy on alternate nights, returning to a two-show season performed in repertory, which it hasn't done in a decade. 

For the cast and crew alike, there's a delicate balance to doing a different show every other night.

Just west of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on a 90 degree afternoon, Southmoreland Park is becoming crowded with actors and tech people to rehearse Antony and Cleopatra , one of two shows - the other is A Midsummer Night's Dream -  that Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is staging this summer. One can hear birds singing, leaves rustling, and the occasional siren, plus hammers banging their final touches upon the double-sided set - so designed because the shows are being done in repertory, where, say, a Tuesday performance of Midsummer is followed by Antony on Wednesday.

The Upside to Doubling Down

Sitting canopied from the sun are five cast members and the Festival's artistic director, Sidonie Garrett, who explains the appeal of doing two shows in this, their 20th anniversary year.

"We've reached the ripe old age of twenty, and to be telling two extremely different stories, I think that's what I'd hoped for and what people will see," Garrett says.  "If you see the set for this play, and the costumes, and the overall story - extremely different than when the set rotates and the fairy costumes come out - I mean, they're completely different looks, a completely different feel. They're going to get two very distinct Shakespeare experiences."

Splitting the Difference

Actors Kim Martin-Cotten and John Rensenhouse, who play Cleopatra and Antony respectively in the story of their tragic relationship, and other roles in the comedy, say they embrace the opportunity to play in repertory while acknowledging the challenges. 

 "I love rep because when someone has a big role in one and a smaller role in the other, then you get a night to rejuvenate (and) recuperate, and be back with lots of energy the next night," says Martin-Cotten, who comes to Kansas City after being nominated this year for a New York Drama Desk Awardfor Best Actress for her performance in the Pearl Theatre's A Moon for the Misbegotten.

"One day I will focus on one character, and the next day, I'll focus on the other character," explains Rensenhouse, who played the title role in Macbeth last summer against Martin-Cotten's Lady Macbeth.

"The one character, Antony, is a soldier at the heart of a tragic love story, and Oberon, the other character, is casting spells on people, the mischievous king of the fairies, so it's a fun light-hearted thing. But then, once I sink my thoughts into the world of Antony, you need to stay there for awhile to really get the benefit out of the work. You can't flip back and forth that easily."

Forget Me Not

Playing Titania in Midsummer and the soothsayer in Antony is Jan Rogge, who says that it's highly unlikely repertory actors could forget what show they're in on any given night.   

"You're in the world of it," she says. "You've got your costume and your wigs and you see everybody else, and there's such a different energy."

Echoes Rensenhouse, "There's a good analogy that if you've stepped onto a basketball court, you wouldn't think of playing football. So when you're in the set and in the clothes, you don't get confused."

Still, actors can be superstitious, and should take note of actor Bruce Roach's experience doing Shakespeare in rep in Oslo.

 "I was all geared up to go the pool and spend a couple of hours at my apartment complex in the afternoon and relax for that night's show," Roach recalls,  "And I got a call from stage management.

"She said, 'Why aren't you in the wig room right now?' I said, 'Well, I'm getting ready to go to the pool', and she said, 'Well, aren't you going to do Orsino this afternoon?'  I said, 'No, that's tonight.' That's before cell phones were prevalent. There are those hazards, and they already had my understudy in the wig."

Picking Favorites

When asked if they had a favorite among their two roles this summer, most of the actors laughed and shook their heads. But Bruce Roach had actually given it some thought.

"The role that you think is the hardest ends up being the role you like better because you have to give more attention to it," he says. "It's like the troubled child requires more attention, so the role that scares you the most perhaps is the one you end up having the greatest attraction or attachment to."

While the actors are modest about learning lines for two plays simultaneously, they unanimously give kudos to the backstage crew, who at the close of one performance, switch out all the props and physically turn the set completely around. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream and Antony and Cleopatra, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, June 19 - July 15 on alternate nights in Southmoreland Park just west of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Check herefor the complete schedule.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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