Review: Ben Butler – First Presbyterian Theater – April 2019

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Ben Butler

Review by Steve Lively

The 2018-2019 season ends this month at First Presbyterian Theater with Ben Butler, a play that mixes historical figures from the dawn of The Civil War with vital contemporary social issues and themes such as racial inequality and duty. Set at Fort Monroe in Virginia in 1861, General Ben Butler is suddenly interrupted by his lieutenant informing him that three escaped slaves have arrived and are essentially looking for ‘sanctuary’ from being returned to enslavement. Director John O’Connell was “struck” by the word ‘sanctuary’ in this this character-driven play and cast a quartet of exceptional performers to round out First Prez’s fiftieth year of local theater in Fort Wayne.

Thom Hofrichter, the theater’s Managing Artistic Director for the past twenty-two years, stars as the title character, a man who had been assigned this post for only a short time when the action of this play begins. Among the highlights of a lengthy career in the military, Butler is known for authoring a legal loophole that served as a step toward the emancipation of slaves. Hofrichter excels in this authoritative role and exhibits a clear level of respect of escaped slaves that is not often associated with men from this era whose obligations to their superior prevented them from being empathetic. Through his clear knowledge of Butler’s role in the Civil War and American politics thereafter, Hofrichter applies his boisterous presence and sharp wit over the course of this two-hour performance.

Butler’s subordinate, Lieutenant Kelly, is played by Kevin Torwelle, who has appeared in multiple performances this season at FPT. Torwelle again expresses his active range of emotions as a young officer whose routine life is jarred by the sudden arrival of the three slaves. Torwelle and Hofrichter execute the swelling and intoxicating momentum they had when they co-starred in last season’s RED as the situation intensifies. Throughout the opening scene together, these two performers solidify their characters’ perspectives and balance the serious nature of the established plot with moments of humor that jab at the conflicts between military order and morality.

Starring as one of the fugitive slaves who have arrived at Fort Monroe is Tony McCarrol as Shepard Mallory, the second of the two real historical figures used as inspiration for this play.

Though he hasn’t graced the FPT stage since 1999, McCarrol, though initially appearing in handcuffs, quickly establishes Mallory through a convincing nervousness and eventual blunt nature. As the tension rises in the conversation between Mallory and Butler, audiences can easily draw parallels between the anxious moments of this historical moment of the Civil War and the current-day situation at the US Southern border. With that parallel in mind, viewers are led to examine the challenges that our professional obligations at times conflict with what is commonly accepted as morally righteous choices.

Robert Phillips returns to the FPT stage as Major John B. Carey, a man who arrives under a truce flag and plans to return the trio of fugitive slaves back to their owner. Phillips and Hofrichter successfully engineer these symbolic roles as powerful men from opposing sides of the stewing war through their cutting exchange that serve as a prelude to the play’s culminating scene.

Throughout this tight, accelerated script, audiences will not have difficulty understanding the morality involved in this play and will likely leave with a fresh reminder that, in their hearts, we often know what is right. Ben Butler serves as an entertaining reminder that we sometimes allow antiquated notions and traditions to interfere with our decisions. This performance not only mixes laughs with stained portions of our country’s history, but it also reminds us that we must take advantage of every moment when the opportunity to improve social equality and moral goodness presents itself.

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Twelfth Night – Theater Review (March 2019)

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There may not be a literal recipe for the perfect story, the perfect date, or the perfect performance, but there are instances when all three can mesh together on a single stage and come extremely close. This season’s installment of William Shakespeare’s plays at First Presbyterian Theater is the bard’s classic comedy Twelfth Night, a tale that centers on a love triangle, involves additional characters who seek companionship, and includes a laughable series of stumbling blocks that may allow or deny these relationships to reach fruition. Throughout the two-hour performance, audiences will enjoy the opportunity to watch love evolve from its origins and witness examples of the great lengths some will reach to find that certain someone.

Ranae Butler and June Rambo co-direct the performance, which includes the unparalleled Shakespearean verse coupled with a number of witty modern-day surprises. Though experienced Shakespeare readers and scholars will no doubt acknowledge the commitment to the script, Butler and Rambo adopt some fresh liberties that will entice viewers of all backgrounds and ages.  

Starring as the lovesick Duke Orsino is Kevin Torwelle, who appeared at First Prez last season co-starring with the theater’s Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter in its January 2018 performance of RED. Once again, Torwelle masterfully displays a man whose journey toward companionship is hardly a seamless process. As Viola, Catherine Eichman submits a dedicated performance as she disguises herself as a man for a majority of the plot. Her whimsical take on the (fe-)male lead keeps the momentum high throughout this upbeat and clever love-triangle plot.  

Meagan Matlock-Vandelaar and Renee Gonzales (as Maria and Feste, repectively) shine in secondary roles within this large cast, especially after the short intermission. Matlock-Vandelaar’s character rallies some of the others and orchestrates a joke on another character in such a convincing manner that it was easy for the audience to believe they were in on the prank.  Gonzales, who was also responsible for the performance’s choreography, offers her stunning vocals in a timely song toward the play’s conclusion. Riley Newsome, who recently appeared this season in FPT’s The Christians, performs the clownish role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek with the robust, calculated energy required by any actor in a similar role found within the Shakespearean comedies. Malvolio, played by veteran actor Scott Rumage, potentially upstages his colleagues with his hilarious contribution as the snobbish servant whose own desires emerge in a comical sequence.

Rae Surface’s simple-natured yet distinguished set design serves as a perfect backdrop to this production, reminding viewers that the language drives the motion of the amusingly convoluted narrative in Shakespeare’s plays. Jeanette Walsh, the costume designer, succinctly drapes the major players in appropriate pieces in order for a particular set of shiny yellow leggings to surprise the audience at a key moment.   

In a comedic play replete with so many moving parts and plot lines, the cast and crew at First Presbyterian Theater have constructed a must-see show that features new faces and local theater mainstays. Surprise your love interest, your spouse, or your friend to an unforgettable production that bridges the past to the present through music and dance while reminding us that the giving and receiving of love pushes us to our most creative and spirited quests in this life.

First Presbyterian Theater has been celebrating its fiftieth season this year and will be hosting a celebration of its 280 productions on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

The Christians – (Review, Jan 2019)

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If you’re reading this review, there exists a high likelihood that you are conscious of a seemingly devastating and divisive trend in America over the past decade or so that has pitted us against each other when topics such as faith and politics arise. Lucas Hnath’s play, The Christians, under the direction of First Presbyterian Theater’s Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter, examines these exact issues and invites the audience to move toward a higher acceptance of one another’s beliefs in hopes of avoiding irreparable harm and division. In his director’s notes, Hofrichter focuses on a line from Pastor Paul during his shocking sermon: “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.” Clearly, the selection of this play is designed to encourage spirited discourse and discourage negativity or the outright abolishment of communication and debate.

Upon entering the theater, audiences are immersed in a church setting. Though there is no direct interaction with the performers, there is a distinct sensation of witnessing the internal and external conflicts among the characters. This unnamed holy house begins its service with a few verses of traditional songs which clearly serve as a welcoming device to that week’s parishioners. Once the music ends, however, the tone of the room drastically shifts based on the shocking rhetoric within the trusted words of the church’s pastor. The shock that the church’s attendees and audience experience force each of us to reflect on our own practices and beliefs, a common theme found in this year’s selections at First Presbyterian Theater.

Starring in this play is Austin Berger, an FPT mainstay who most recently appeared in last season’s production of Faith Healer. As Pastor Paul, Berger’s authentic rendition of a man of faith who is at a moral crossroads exhibits the inner turmoil that countless humans have likely wrestled with throughout history. His character has spent decades building the trust of his flock and associates, and Berger’s genuine performance as the chief pastor of what has become a mega-church provides an opportunity for viewers to understand more closely how even the holiest of us struggles with certain unanswered questions.

Riley Newsome, a graduate from Huntington University, plays the youthful associate Pastor Joshua, a man whose own checkered history is at the crux of the conflict between him and his superior. Newsome’s performance is equally convincing, especially as we see him evolve from the initial shocking sermon toward his role within religion in later scenes. Through long monologues, Newsome presents a firm counterpoint to the positions that Berger’s Pastor Paul creates at the outset.

Filling out the cast are David McCants, as a church elder named Jay; Alora Nichole, as an active congregant named Jenny; and Jennifer Poiry, as Pastor Paul’s wife Elizabeth.  Though a silent character during the church’s public services, McCants offers a stunning amount of impact with his deliberate and grave expressions of concern as a representative of the church’s board of directors. In one of the play’s most poignant scenes, McCants and Berger present one of the play’s most crucial themes: a challenge to traditional thought and practice found within the church. In her role as a faithful parishioner, Nichole does a beautiful job in vocalizing the concerns of Paul’s doubters and, perhaps, many non-believers in a succinct, yet genuinely nervous fashion. Lastly, Poiry’s tremendous exhibition as the loyal wife creates even more depth of conflict for the troubled pastor as the play unfolds.

Though there is no intermission, The Christians offers much to unpack in its ninety- minute running time. The mastery of this story is in its unique personification of our own concerns with communication among one another, and this cast offers a stirring amount of tension as the plot develops. Audience members of strong religious faith can gain just as much as those who have lengthy lists of questions and doubts. While placing the dilemma within the holy walls of a house of God, it seems clear that the play’s central message is not limited to those of faith. More significantly, the challenges and rhetoric exchanged on stage here can bridge our seemingly deteriorating and divided culture.

“Shaw Out Loud”: The Doctor’s Dilemma (Review)

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There are those who look at a night out at the theater to be an escape from the daily grind, the pressures from work, and the stress that often accompanies political discourse.  Then again, theater often upends this expectation and arrests our attention by offering, within the confines of a couple hours, a glimpse into different perspectives from past eras.  When director Thom Hofrichter selected The Doctor’s Dilemma for this season for First Presbyterian Theater, he did so by purposely connecting a modern-day moral debate with the thoughts of one of history’s finest satirists, George Bernard Shaw.  Though it was originally published over a century ago in England, Shaw’s play posits questions that force the audience to examine their moral compass and challenges its notions of empathy and compassion.

Hofrichter, who is in his 22nd year at FPT as Managing Artistic Director, elected for this performance to be a staged reading, which means that the actors carry scripts with them on stage.  This technique, he notes, allows for Shaw’s dense language and rhetoric to become the focal point. The experienced cast at FPT chosen for this “Shaw Out Loud” performance succeeds in an innovative and enjoyable manner.  

Over the course of five acts, five physicians are faced with the inability to cure all who are sick and must determine the fate of two local individuals.  Boomeranging throughout the play are the contrasting thoughts and perspectives, not of the actors or even the characters, but rather of an entire society, which is even more reason for a contemporary audience to examine Shaw’s suddenly relevant work.

With a dialogue-driven play set up in this manner, the performers become vessels of philosophical debate.  Theatergoers may notice how they will find themselves noticing less and less how each character is holding the very words he or she has been tapped to recite. This cast gracefully directs attention to the attitudes and rhetoric embedded within Shaw’s words.  By the final act, I would be surprised to learn that any viewer was acknowledging the scripts in performer’s hands. With drama, we are conditioned to identify a protagonist and track his or her progress toward becoming a more morally sound individual. Shaw’s play, however, puts this expectation on its proverbial ear and forces the audience to internalize their own beliefs and actions.  This is a testament to the combined efforts of a cast and director who share the notion that the attention should be on the essence of the play’s thematic focus and not the fate of a single character.

The chief man of medicine from the group is Dr. Ridgeon, played by Larry Bower.  Bower excels at capturing Ridgeon’s bedside manner, especially in the presence of the sick and their loved ones.  Kate Black as Dr. Walpole offers many humorous jabs that lighten the weighty plot. Rounding out the quintet of doctors are convincingly aloof performances by Orion Toepler, Brian Ernsberger, and Tom Corron.  Together these five actors succeed in exposing the audience to the disparaging egos of those whose careers hold human lives in the balance.

I particularly enjoyed Billy Hofman as Louis Dubedat in his arguably antagonistic role because he successfully presents valid arguments that eat away at the stuffy doctors and, perhaps, the preconceived notions of the audience.  Finally, Robyn Pasko, in her return after an outstanding performance in FPT’s My Dead Clown earlier this season, submits a stirring monologue toward the plays conclusion that, at least for this reviewer, instigated goosebumps.

While the first- and second acts may appear to spend a little too much time establishing the distinctions among the five doctors, the three remaining acts deliver a powerful payoff.  Among the most impressive features of this cast’s performance is how each one clearly establishes an identifiable trajectory of his or her character’s own morality.

Rae Surface’s set design is appropriately bare with its simple arrangement of metallic props serving as a subtle reminder of the sterile, callous environment often found in a doctor’s office or surgeon’s arena.  This purposeful void further reinforces the attention that Shaw’s dialogue demands.

The mastery of this early 20th century play perhaps lies in its unlikely relevance to a 21st century audience.  Shaw’s cutting language has evolved into the basis for a present-day ethical debate. The performers convincingly shuttle the audience back to 1906 and leave them impassioned about the reality and tragedy of modern morality.

 

Present Laughter (2018) – A Review

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“Alas, poor Yorick.   I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest….”  Above the fireplace within stage actor Gerry Essendine’s late 1930s flat in London is an image of the actor himself, holding a skull, which is no doubt one his own favorite images of himself from his performance as Hamlet.   Essendine’s past, present, and future are all explored in the First Presbyterian Theater’s run of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter.  Surrounded by a vivacious and eccentric cast, this play delves into the life of a celebrity within the performing arts and reminds us of how the human heart desires companionship far more than it does material wealth and momentary satisfaction.

Gerry Essendine is played by the highly talented and expressive Todd Frymier.  In capturing this self-centered, witty character, Frymier also achieves a convincing level of self-loathing.  As the play progresses, we can see how a playboy lifestyle eventually has worn on him to the point of near madness and despair.

Making her Fort Wayne stage debut is Shelby Lewis as Daphne Stillington.  Though her resume includes a number of lead Shakespearean roles, Lewis excels as a young woman who is clearly ready to shed her girlish naivete and is anxiously desiring to enter an adult relationship.  In her vibrant performance, Lewis convincingly captures a young woman whose obsession with Essendine has clouded her take on reality. Susan Kahn plays Lady Saltburn, whose perfect moniker creates a tense and incredibly awkward moment in the life of a man whose private life and desires are unravelling far faster than he cares to admit.  

Essendine’s employees include a secretary, a butler, and a cleaning woman, each of whom shape Essendine’s complex lifestyle and bitter flaws.  As the secretary Monica Reed, FPT mainstay Nancy Kartholl delivers a consistent, no-nonsense performance as a woman whose own adulthood has been devoted to working for a man whose career is framed by becoming someone different.  Kartholl’s character has, it seems, evolved as maternal, and the two of them exhibit how the balance some people have with one another can result in a lifelong friendship.

Gary Lanier plays Fred, Essendine’s personal butler.  Lanier’s jovial presence counters many of the high-anxiety moments, especially those involving Essendine’s lovers.  Lastly, Pam Karkosky delights as the chainsmoking Miss Erickson. Karkosky’s character is perhaps the truest ‘yin’ to Essendine’s ‘yang’ in that her completely unabashed views on the situations withing the apartment suggest that raw mentality most of us withold behind a filter.  

On a secondary level, Suzan Moriarty and Jim Nelson further complete the turmoiled main character.  Moriarty plays Liz Essendine, Gerry’s ex-wife, though they apparently never took the time to make that dissolution of marriage official.  Though her scenes are sporadic, Moriarty shapes our picture of Gerry Essendine by inserting a limited amount of intimate details of the famed actor.  Jim Nelson glowingly performs as eccentric Roland Maule. Maule’s desire to be near Essendine is similar to that of Daphne Stillington’s, though it is much more professionally than romantically driven.  Throughout this comic drama, Nelson excels as a quirky bystander within a deeply complex romantic web.

The remaining cast members further intensify the story, especially the latter scenes.  Andrew Gross and Jim Matusik play Gerry’s friends and colleagues, Henry and Morris, respectively.  As with every other character, these two men shape a dimension of the main character whose life seems to be crashing down with each ring of the doorbell.  Finally, Gloria Minnich performs as Joanna Lyppiatt. Minnich counters Frymier’s Essendine exquisitely through biting dialogue and a flirtatious, yet bedeviling presence. She accelerates the comic tension that had been building the entire time.  

Director Christopher Murphy selected this play after catching a performance led by film and stage legend Kevin Kline.  He notes that the plot is, perhaps surprisingly, not outdated. It seems apparent that exploring the life of an ego-centric performer is just as timely as ever, given modern society’s obsession with the privated lives of its idols within the arts.  Murphy and Rae Surface coordinated the set design, and the Essendine-as-Hamlet portrait was no accident. Hamlet, upon finding the skull of the deceased clown, reflects on his boyhood innocence, which, for this play, is a direct correlation to how Essendine longs to grasp his own true life back after having spent years being other people on stage and only a small, witty version of himself with close company off stage.  Through a balanced amount of tension and humor, Present Laughter reminds us to simply enjoy this short life we have together.  

“The Gospel According to…” – A Review (2018)

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The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and the Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord (by Scott Carter)

A growing amount of the modern forms of entertainment lack that aspect that art and theater typically target and thrive upon: the demand for mental interaction and the inherent intuition on the part of the viewer or reader.  When Scott Carter was penning this impossible interaction between three of the world’s most famous and influential thinkers, he must have remembered that greatness comes from loss and mistakes; that it is also born out of perseverance and drive; and, perhaps most significantly, greatness stems from an absolute addiction to seeking and examining potential answers to the most cryptic questions of this world, regardless of the era in which one lives.

Luckily for theatergoers of First Presbyterian Theater’s final show of the 2017-2018 season, these cryptic questions are the crux of the exchange between Thomas Jefferson (d. 1826), Charles Dickens (d. 1870), and Count Leo Tolstoy (d. 1910).  Each man enters a solemn room with his most recent memory being the moment he died. Once they learn one another’s identity and general attitude toward religion and philosophy, the story shoots off in a flurry of intellectual perspectives mixed with light-hearted humor.  

Scott McMeen returns to this stage as Jefferson and provides an optimistic performance as the former president and framer of the Constitution.  This season, he warmed our souls as Ebenezer Scrooge in the modern take on A Christmas Carol.  Here, McMeen rations the widely accepted and respectable historic view of Jefferson with an introspective glance at a man whose morals on paper were, perhaps, not as sound in reality.  

Brian Enrnsberger treats us to a confident and quite humorously pompous version of Charles Dickens. While Ernsberger has performed with FPT and other Fort Wayne theaters in the past, his return to the Summit City stage fills a six-year void.  With occassional quips to “his” own works throughout the discourse among all three men, Ernsberger successfully captures the often-exaggerated aloofness of the British author.

Rounding out this tremendous trio, Thom Hofrichter enters as Count–but don’t call him that!–Leo Tolstoy.  With his convincing Russian accent, Hofricter exhibits his passion for language, philosophy, and religion in convincing fashion.  This play brings an end to Hofrichter’s twenty-first year with the theater as its Managing Artistic Director.

The story examines some of the most controversial issues of mankind, but the title is indictative of the premise of how each man had at one point in his life rewritten the opening four books of the New Testament.  The arc of this after-life summit of great thinkers examines how each man from his generation and region contemplated the biblical text and specific passages. Citations to exact verses are identified, but when some disparity and disagreement evolves, the action of the play ignites.  These men are humans after all, so even in death they find themselves desiring to be heard, wanting to be right, and verbally sparring over their points of view.

Director Chance Parker suggests that the play takes each character “on a journey through essential questions pertaining to life, truth, and faith in every meaning of the word.”   Parker, a recent graduate from IPFW, co-directed this season’s Red with Hofrichter.

Jeannie Pendleton’s resume in costume design is deep and respectable, and she brought her talents to this cast and performance.  Each character is not only distinctive in reputation and language, but each man’s clothing represents another facet of his personality and perspective.  

Rae Surface and Austin Berger return to FPT for this performance with positions as technical director/set designer and light board operator, respectively.  Surface’s simplistic set is suggestive of a cleared mind in the after-life. Though the props are minimal, they function appropriately throughout this dialogue-heavy performance.  

Bill Lane is the projection designer and operator, and Sara Ihrie–a freshman at Snider High School–returns to the sound board after a successful stint in the same position for the theater’s previous play, Hamlet.

One does not need to have a deep understanding or experience with each of these men’s accomplishments or publications for the story and its themes to resonate.  The universality of the themes shines through in each scene. Upon its conclusion, audiences are all but forced to contemplate the same issues for themselves and how the shared points of view apply to their surroundings.  This serves as a formidable end to another outstanding season from the various casts and crews who work tirelessly at the First Presbyterian Theater.

Hamlet (Review)

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This year’s Shakespearean installment at First Presbyterian Theater in downtown Fort Wayne features an all-female cast that presents The Bard’s famous vengeful son in a truly refreshing manner.  Readers are probably familiar with the highly publicized footnote that men and boys were the only performers before-, during-, and shortly after Shakespearean-era theater.  Thus, what can any cast–five hundred years after Shakespeare’s death–do to breathe new life into this story of vengeance?  While this highly talented troupe of Hamlet remains true to the Elizabethan era language, the performance simultaneously serves as an appealing alternative to those familiar with the tragedy and as a progressive introduction to Shakespeare for any young audience member.  

I’ll spare you the synopsis for two clear reasons: You either know the play (probably from high school or college), or you don’t know the play.  Members from both of these camps should catch this two-week running because Shakespeare’s words and plotlines have a proclivity to offer more to an audience each and every time. This performance can be a fantastic opportunity to ease the uninitiated into the pinnacle of the classic tragedies.  For those who know the text but have yet to see it performed live, there may not be a better opportunity to have “See a Shakespearean play” struck from a bucket list.  Lastly, for those who have seen a film version, read the play, or viewed a mixed-gender live performance, please note that it is likely that this female cast will still impress and provide something different than ever before.  

Halee Bandt exhibits great range in emotion and presence as young Prince Hamlet from the opening sequence to the final critical moments.  Her masterful handling of multiple dense monologues establishes her among the elite performers to grace this historic stage.  Fort Wayne theater veteran Kate Black excels as Claudius, whose staunchy presence builds the required, obvious tension throughout each scene.  Nancy Kartholl, who recently appeared in Faith Healer as Grace, thrives as Polonius, whose protection of his daughter and whose loyalty to the king serves as a recurring battle with the title character.   Returning to the stage after a decade-long hiatus is June Rambo, whose performance of right-hand-man Horatio was among the most noteworthy of this large cast.  Additionally, newcomer Izzy Chilian proves she belongs in the theater with her impressive secondary role as the prince’s love interest Ophelia. Kira Downey, an admitted fan of Shakespeare, astounds as the Ghost.  Her passion for Shakespeare’s language is apparent and her performance arrests the audience in each of her scenes.  Finally of note, the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are executed quite well by Tala Munsterman and Marissa Steiber, respectively.  The remaining actors of this outstanding twenty-member cast all serve as worthwhile catalysts throughout the play.  

Directed by Thom Hofrichter, Hamlet might be just what American society needs in 2018.  While it may be too soon to state that the play is experiencing a coast-to-coast resurgence, the themes within it could not be more relevant.   In his director’s notes, Hofrichter suggests there may be more to the opening line “Who’s there?” than just the curiosity of a soldier who is not sure if he’s just seen the spirit of a recently deceased king.  The play has existential undertones and guides audiences to find a part of themselves in Hamlet.   The oft-quoted reflection monologue (“To be or not to be…”) potentially encapsulates a second level of self-identity and self-worth when performed by a female.  

Not to be overlooked with this performance is the costume design of Jeanette Walsh.  Through an atypical, erratic pattern, each character’s clothes work well to suggest a profound sense of individuality–a theme that has always been apparent in this play but is even more so in this production.  IPFW theater professor John O’Connell lends his deep resumé as fight director.  Additionally, Rae Surface returns as the technical director and appears as two separate characters.   

This sturdy ensemble cast carries with it the shadows of generations of women who, it stands to reason, were unsung heroes on some level in society.  This direct challenge of theater traditions, especially with the expectations that accompany any of Shakespeare’s titles, sends a clear message that those traditions must stay in the past.  It further serves as a vivid reminder of what had to happen over the past several centuries for the public to have access to Shakespeare’s work performed by a cast of females who range from middle-school aged young ladies to seasoned stage veteran performers.