William Shakespeare's 18th sonnet reminds us "summer's lease hath all too short a date," so we are welcoming summer a little early with the 41st season of Idaho Shakespeare Festival, which opens Friday, May 26. Five productions will cycle in and out through October, including Wait Until Dark, A Midsummer Night's Dream and a stage adaptation of the Disney animation classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Notably, ISF Producing Artistic Director Charles Fee will direct Hamlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Boise Weekly sat down with Fee ahead of the season opening to talk about how ISF is putting a fresh spin on a 400-year-old play.
This year's summer season is an interesting mix: two Shakespeare classics, a musical and a couple of thrillers. Can you talk about the art of how to build a season?
It's a bit like building a really good dinner party. In that sense, you're looking for a whole variety of tastes and flavors. If I entice you into the theater to see a musical, a murder mystery or populist play, you might say, "Going out to the festival and sitting in that beautiful amphitheater on the river was so much fun. I saw so many people I knew; we had a great dinner and had a blast." Then, you'll try it again and try one of the more complex classic plays.
There's not much more complex than Hamlet, and I understand that you have some casting news regarding the lead role, that is doubly exciting.
The most surprising notion, of course, is that we will have a man, Jonathan Dyrud, playing Hamlet one night and a woman, Laura Welsh Berg, playing Hamlet in the next performance. But I have to say, I didn't go into this production with that idea.
I was fortunate to see a woman play Hamlet many years ago at The Public Theater in New York City. With Hamlet's bravado and even sexual tension, I had to wrap my brain around the idea of a woman playing the lead role but, soon enough, it was one of the best nights of theater I had ever experienced.
It's what Samuel Coleridge called "the willing suspension of disbelief" when you walk into a theater. It's not any harder watching a woman play Hamlet [than] to watch someone play a ghost coming back from the dead.
That said, a female Hamlet at ISF could be the talk of the town this summer.
Before heading to Boise for the summer, we performed this Hamlet at the Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland. I can't tell you how many people told us what a thrill it was to hear the text spoken by a young woman. Someone said, "I stopped thinking about gender and realized that I was hearing the play very differently than ever before." Someone else wrote, "It was suddenly fresh in a way that I hadn't expected because the speaker was so different than I had imagined." I fully expect that to happen this summer in Boise.
What a unique theatrical experience: seeing two performances of Hamlet, perhaps back to back, with different interpretations of the lead character. I'm presuming that's something that dramatically impacts not only your audiences but your company.
John's performance is gorgeous. He's 6 feet 3 inches [tall] and in tremendous shape. His Hamlet is more in the line of a warrior. Laura's Hamlet leans more toward the intellectual. Which one is more emotionally overwhelmed? Which one is more cool-headed? It's a tremendous experience for the audience and the entire company because it changes the temperature on stage from night to night.
It's not unusual to see a lot of families at the amphitheater each summer, and I'm certain it's not lost on you that there will be young girls in the audience, seeing their first production of Hamlet. They'll be seeing a young woman as the title character.
That's an important point. I'll be really clear on this: the number of women that wrote to me and told me they brought their daughters to see the play was overwhelming. They said they were coming to the play regardless, but they made a point of telling me how accessible and personal the performance was for them. By the same token, I heard from a lot of men who said both performances were beautiful.