Shakespeare in the Parks 2019: Merry Wives & Henry IV

Kevin Brustuen

In 1905, the Shakespeare Women’s Club of Great Falls staged an outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, sheltered from the elements only by a small grove of trees outside of town. It seemed natural to stage a Shakespearean play outside; they were outdoor people living in Montana. The outcome of the play was captured in a sketch by the famous cowboy artist, Charlie Russell, who painted the rain-drenched women struggling back into town sopping wet from the sudden unexpected downpour that came up during the play. Russell’s wife was one of the main promoters of this play and Russell felt that gave him license to playfully title his painting “All’s Well that Ends Well.” 

Outside Shakespeare. Shakespeare in Public Spaces. Shakespeare in Big Sky country, where all the world’s a stage. It all comes together with the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (MSIP) summer tour, now entering its 47th year of bringing Shakespeare to outdoor stages and public spaces in out of the way places across Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and North Dakota. And like the Women’s Club of Great Falls’ experience, MSIP gets rained on, snowed on, hailed on, and loved through it all. Since 1973, MSIP has brought free, professional productions of Shakespeare and other classics to rural and underserved communities, marrying public spaces with Shakespearean plays.

This summer MSIP is presenting Henry IV, Part 1 for the second time and Merry Wives of Windsor for the third time. 

Henry IV, a history play, is based upon an actual conflict between Scotland, Wales, and England that occurred in 1402-3. It is the story of a young Hal trying to figure out how to become a king, as his father wants him to be. However, as dramaturg Gretchen Minton says, Shakespeare wrote such plays to raise questions about ethics, costs of war, and characteristics of leaders: “Shakespeare’s writings are effective because he raises questions without answering them, allowing differing perspectives about history, something that keeps Shakespeare relevant to today’s audiences.”

Pointing to Montanans’ patriotism, honor, and desire for fairness, Director Kevin Asselin, who portrayed Hotspur in MSIP’s 2002 summer tour, notes that “performing Henry IV with its themes of honor, devotion to loyalty and justice speaks well to Montana values.” Since Montana has one of the highest rates of veterans in any state, and during World War I provided more soldiers as a percentage of population than any other state, Asselin chose to stage Henry IV in a World War I setting, hoping audiences can better understand and appreciate the rebellion and fight for the throne, as the young Henry tries to live up to his father's expectations. 

Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy set in a provincial town. Even though Falstaff appears in this play, Wives is nearly the exact opposite of Henry IV in many ways: it’s a comedy, it features common middle-class people, and includes several woman as main characters. Thinking women are simple and easily manipulated, Falstaff tries to fool two women into having an affair with him, but they make a fool of him instead, showing women to be capable, trustworthy, and intelligent, unusual themes at that time. 

Merry Wives is directed by guest director Marti Lyons, a nationally renowned director based out of Chicago. Lyons is interested in focusing on when comedy is funny, until it isn’t anymore. At what point does a joke go too far? Lyons says that humor can serve many purposes, and she is intent on showing how humor can be used to help a community take care of itself and remain healthy. Lyons brings out the humor in Merry Wives in such a way that audiences will laugh and enjoy the play, yet walk away slightly disturbed by what they’ve just witnessed. 

Eleven actors form the MSIP 2019 summer tour, who unload and put up the stage, set up the sound system, unpack and don their costumes, perform a two-hour play, hand out programs, greet the audience, take the set down, drive from town to town, with only five days off each summer, putting on 76 productions between the middle of June and the first days of September for audiences ranging from 50 to 1500 people, putting stages on top of buttes, in open glades inside state parks, abandoned mines, and city parks. Everyone is equal: all audiences get the same shows, the same humor, the same pathos, the same examination of humanity that Shakespeare is known for. And perhaps most importantly, the actors interact with welcoming warmth towards all the children and adults that surround the stages each night.

The actors who perform with MSIP come from around the country; few are Montana natives anymore, but nearly all wish they were. Despite the hard work that goes into doing a MSIP summer tour, these actors love this job, describing it to their friends as a job made in heaven. They love the people, they love the land, they love the interaction with the crowds before and after performances, and always – in a way not present in other venues in other states— there is the land. In such majestic settings as Montana, it can be easier for audiences to grasp an essential truth that accompanies a Shakespearean play. As one MSIP actor said, “I like to hike in the mountains here as a way to prepare for performing Shakespeare; hiking in the shadows of the majestic mountains and big sky country of Montana is humbling but also empowering for performing Shakespeare.”

This summer, when the actors bring Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor to the stage of Montana, they’re aware of their space in the sweeping arc of Montana’s history, as the audiences themselves are. Asselin talks about the difference between performing Shakespeare outdoors versus indoors: “There is no defined ‘fourth wall’ between the actors and the audience when performing outdoors; audience and actors are in a collaboration to create and perform the play.”  He notes that competition exists in outdoor settings, as when deer casually stroll out of the trees and walk past the actors during the post-apocalyptic staging of Macbeth in Libby, or spectacular wildfires burning out of control, clearly visible during the performance of Richard III on Poker Jim Butte near Birney.

Yet these conditions of performing outdoors are important to Montana audiences. Montanans pride themselves on being close to nature; whether they’re farmers, ranchers, loggers, hikers, backpackers, or business owners, Montanans eagerly embrace their nature and public spaces. Often these same public spaces form part of the stages where Shakespeare is performed, creating a unity between the audiences’ desire to be part of nature and to see stories in everything. It’s not uncommon to see copies of Shakespearean plays in audience members’ work-calloused hands, following along with the performances.

Montana audiences respond well to Shakespeare plays, in large part due to Shakespeare’s own preoccupation with nature. Growing up in the small rural town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare experienced the natural world firsthand, and his writings clearly reflect his agrarian childhood. Minton writes about Shakespeare and the environment, and about the Anthropocene, through the lens of Shakespeare’s plays. Minton says Shakespeare's plays reflect his growing awareness of the degree to which humans alter their environment: "The town of Windsor is on the edge of the forest--a forest that contains sawpits and hunting grounds that show the degree to which people use natural resources."

Jo Burris, from Alberton in the far western part of Montana, is passionate about Shakespeare.  She recalls how she saw Midsummer Night’s Dream in Bloomington, Illinois years ago, and how Puck “just spoke to her.”Moving to Montana a few years later, she discovered Shakespeare in the Parks, and quickly became a passionate supporter of this company.  She and her husband, Gary, plan their schedules around Shakespeare in the Parks’ summer schedule, driving across Montana to take in Shakespeare in different towns, always surprised and pleased with how Montana audiences connect with Shakespeare in their own communities.

Robert Smith, an MSIP summer tour coordinator, lives in Columbus, Montana, where he taught school and served as a children’s librarian. Smith’s efforts brought MSIP’s summer tour to Columbus about ten years ago. Smith’s interest in bringing Shakespeare to Columbus began when he started a summer theater camp for school kids. He asked MSIP actors, appearing in nearby Fishtail, if they would be willing to talk to his campers. When the MSIP actors arrived, they found the camp kids so excited and eager to learn more that Kevin Asselin, the fight choreographer that summer, decided to lead the actors in a sword fighting exhibition for the camp kids, to the tremendous enjoyment of the entire camp. And the rest is, as they say, history. Smith speaks to the impact MSIP has on the community, and especially to the kids: “I can’t emphasize enough how important arts are to children. I see these kids who were part of that experience with MSIP go on to accomplish great things in their lives. I know there’s more than just the arts, more than just the theatre, that has gone into forming these kids into the great adults they have become, but Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is one of the biggest commonalities between them all.”

Susan Wolfe, from Forsyth, experiences a similar feeling when she talks about families arriving at the performance location when MSIP arrives and starts setting up the stage: “It’s not just the play, it’s the whole thing. Watching the actors transform a lawn into another time and place is magical and means so much to the whole community.” People in her community forge life-long friendships with actors; children never forget the magic of these plays.

As this article began with the impact of weather on performing Shakespeare in the outdoors, MSIP today is increasingly concerned about the changing weather patterns, and how the impact these conditions have on the tour. In the last five years, wildfires have caused disruptions to performances, creating cancellations, moving performances indoors, reducing audience size, and giving actors sore throats from smoke. Wildfires have now become the norm in the latter part of Montana summers, leading MSIP personnel to consider switching the schedule, possibly starting the tour in the west and ending in the eastern part of the state. It’s not an ideal solution, due to late winter conditions that can prevail in the west and the intense heat and dry conditions of the prairies in August, but it may become necessary simply to carry on the traditions and mission of MSIP into the future. But regardless, watching MSIP perform Shakespeare in public outdoor spaces is to be part of something bigger than yourself. Go, attend, and enjoy.  Even if you get rained on, you will love it, even as Charlie Russell did in 1905.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, based out of Montana State University, performs Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor to 76 communities starting June 24th in Lewistown, ending in Manhattan, Montana on the 3rd of September. For more information about when and where they are currently performing, please go to their website at https://shakespeareintheparks.org

Photos Abbey Dankoff

 

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