It was toil and trouble this year for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.

Deconstructing Willy 

It was toil and trouble this year for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.

After a year of research, fundraising, and hand-wringing, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival staff resigns itself to this fact: Everything boils down to 23 performances. It's almost unfair. The 2000 season, which ended last month, might be remembered for several things. But missing on the list will be the feeling that it was all fireworks and pats on the back.

"It's been a hard year," says artistic director Bruce Levitt.

This summer's plays -- King Lear, directed by Levitt, and As You Like It, directed by Mark Robbins -- had their share of problems. The sound system was all but a mess; actors were either reciting lines to an accompanying crackle or not heard at all. Though there were only two full rain-outs, the threat of storms and the almost tropical heat kept people away and, for the first time in the festival's eight-year history, attendance dropped as much as 30 percent.

And from this writer's seat, the shows were damn hard to follow. Two friends -- one a former Unicorn board member, the other a Star reporter, and both very savvy women -- were just as lost. Comparing this season with seasons past -- when audiences saw a hilarious Taming of the Shrew, an eerily perverse Macbeth, and a high-velocity Measure for Measure -- one has to ask: What happened?

When asked to reflect on the season's high points, Shake-speare Festival general manager Joe Wilson says just as much with contemplative silence and a sigh of "Wow" as he does with words. Eventually, he comes up with a couple. "I was thrilled with Lear," he says. "To be able to pull that off was an accomplishment. And we watched the education component grow. For the first time, we had a theater camp for high school students, called Shakespeare Exploration, in addition to the four other camps."

But Wilson's list of downers is longer, including the fall in attendance from 38,000 in 1999 to this summer's 31,000. "And the donations at the door dropped because of that," he says. "It was also the toughest weather we'd faced. That constant moisture and the wind can drive the sound people crazy. And we had some internal staffing changes and problems."

Robbins agrees that the weather wreaked havoc with the microphones. "There's a consistent problem with the mics, and the intelligibility differs depending upon where on the grounds you sit," he says. "More body mics will go a long way toward fixing the problems, but they are unbelievably expensive."

Yet the directors disavow any charge that the shows were either too cloudy or downright incomprehensible.

"I think the comprehension problems are yours and not the general audience's, from what ordinary people said to us leaving the park and the comments and responses on the survey," Levitt says in an e-mail. Later on the phone, he elaborates: "I don't understand it. Nobody else expressed that to me and, in fact, people said it was the clearest Lear they'd ever seen."

Levitt adds that he would never want to preface the shows with too much explanation: "If you do, you are condescending to the play and to the audience. You can't pander."

But as one of the few remaining Shakespeare fests in the country that doesn't charge admission, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has to concern itself with making the plays reachable to the masses. Does accessibility matter?

"In one sense it does, obviously. Still, there are things you can't cut," says Levitt, who trimmed King Lear by up to 1,800 lines. "You have to leave in scenes that don't leave gaps."

"I didn't spend a lot of time adjusting As You Like It for accessibility," Robbins says. "I think the play is straightforward as is, and I think dumbing down Shakespeare is generally a mistake."

Wilson agrees that accessibility is always on the front burner. "When we sit

through rehearsal, we'll say, 'They're not going to understand that relationship,'" he says. "It is very important. We try to do everything we can to prepare the audience."

Actor John Rensen-house, who appeared in both shows this summer and worked at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for three years, shows more sympathy for the perception that this summer's productions were less than lucid.

"It's a testament to the earlier years and how much clarity there had been," he says. "Clarity and understandability are major concerns. I've seen a lot of Shakespeare and sometimes get really lost. As an actor, it might take me reading it 10 times to get to, 'Oh, so that's what he meant.'"

One of the answers points to increasing the influx of green. More money certainly would help fix some of the problems; a new sound system is, in fact, atop the list of improvements slated for next summer. And Rensenhouse adds that money also would be well spent on added rehearsal time and larger casts.

"The bottom line is doing two really big plays with four weeks of rehearsal," he says. "And the double-casting of roles due to a lesser number of actors (than needed) can get confusing."

Referring perhaps to how the festival is more pregnant with possibilities than it is immersed in toil and trouble, he adds, "You need more rehearsal time to be a world-class Shakespearean theater."

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