Roundtable: Shakespeare’s work

Not all of the audience members attending Friday's opening night of "As You Like It" – the first production of the South Dakota Shakespeare Festival – could be expected to be familiar with the play.

Shakespeare experts Lois Potter of the University of Delaware, Peter Kanelos of Loyola University and Darlene Farabee of the University of South Dakota discuss “As You Like It” as part of a scholars’ roundtable Saturday afternoon. (Photo by David Lias)

But judging from their reactions, you never would have guessed, with the majority of them fully engaged and enjoying themselves throughout.

That's hardly surprising, Peter Kamelos said during the festival's Scholars Roundtable Saturday afternoon in Farber Hall – Shakespeare's plays often seem familiar.

"We often have these moments of déjà vu in watching a Shakespeare play we've never seen before or read before, because of the commonalities with something that is familiar to us," said Kamelos, a professor at Loyola University.

The plot of "As You Like It" concerns a pair of women who flee the court of Duke Frederick for the Forest of Arden, disguised as brother and sister, and the assortment of characters they meet there.

The character types and plot twists featured in the play are familiar because they continue to be used to this day.

"That's the staple of Hollywood's comedy for the past century, for example," Kamelos said.

The play also would have seemed familiar to its initial audience, but for different reasons, said Lois Potter, emeritus professor of Shakespeare at the University of Delaware.

"This is a play that's based on a very popular novel that a lot of (Shakespeare's) audience would have known, so people going to this play were in the same position that we would be in, I suppose, going to a movie based on a novel that we like.

"In some ways, they would be under certain constraints: 'I hope they're going to like this as much as they liked the book,'" she said.

Last year during a meeting of the Vermillion Rotary Club, festival director Chaya Gordon-Bland said the decision was made to open the festival on a light note, with one of Shakespeare's comedies.

The scholars agreed that this was the right decision.

"One of the things I think this production capitalizes on so wonderfully is the festive element of the play," said Darlene Farabee, Shakespeare professor at the University of South Dakota. "The production itself is full of music and really takes advantage of the songs and the musical elements that are in the play, and then develops them, also."

Of course, the opening of the play was literally musical, featuring the cast performing a song.

"I think that's really lovely, because this comedy – like so many of Shakespeare's comedies – starts out with an opening theme that could easily descend straight into tragedy," Farabee said.

Kanelos added that Prentis Park, the setting of the festival, added another element to the staging not often seen when the production is mounted.

"I think all stagings essentially are an attempt to overcome obstacles, and one interesting obstacle about doing 'As You Like It' in this setting is, you are in a wooded setting, supposedly the Forest of Arden," he said. "There's a scene in which you're supposed to be tacking poems on trees, but none of those trees are particularly close to the stage, and so you have to find a way to do it.

"I thought it was nice that we could actually see you break out of the stage setting … to find the nearest tree," he said.

Most productions are required to find a way to "concoct a wood," Kanelos said.

"But when you concoct a wood you bring it close at hand," he said. "Your stage and set designers can put trees up or some stylized thing. And I thought, 'what an interesting tension, to be in the middle of a forest that is sort of withdrawn from the play itself.'"

Additionally, many of the staging choices entailed actors circling around the park's trees and hedges.

"It was a way to bring the whole park into the stage, because the stage is the one part of the park that isn't wooded," Kanelos said.

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