Lit Moon Presents the 2006 World Shakespeare Festival
by Charles Donelan
Entering the fifth century of his fame, Shakespeare enthralls and energizes like no other author. How many restless days and nights have been consumed in avid pursuit of his elusive meanings? How many readers and actors have yearned and strived to make Shakespeare’s words their own? Shakespeare, unlike even his greatest literary rivals, has engendered not just a following but a worldwide movement — a kind of international pilgrimage that continues to grow, and to transform the people who participate. For 10 days this October, Santa Barbara will be home to this vast and evolving Shakespearean movement, serving as the temporary destination for an ongoing global journey into the enchanting creations of the most imaginative of writers.
The 2006 Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival, which opens on October 12 with two of the bard’s most famous tragedies, Hamlet and Macbeth, is the most ambitious drama festival ever mounted in Santa Barbara, and one of the most broad-ranging festivals of Shakespeare ever produced anywhere. Companies and individual artists will be traveling from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Canada to join with Lit Moon and the Santa Barbara-based Theatre Artists Group to perform nine different plays in a stunning total of 27 separate shows. And that’s not all. There will be lectures, including a keynote address on October 21 by Shakespeare scholar Dennis Kennedy, and a slew of parties — big ones at the beginning and end, and lots of smaller ones throughout the 10-day extravaganza.
The festival represents the life dream of one particularly active and enduring Shakespeare pilgrim, John Blondell, the founder of Lit Moon Theatre Company and the chairman of the theater department at Westmont College. The specific character of this festival testifies to Blondell’s generosity, his vision, and his willingness to travel in pursuit of theater, community, and enlightenment. Because of the Lit Moon Shakespeare Festival, 50 Eastern European actors and directors — 49 of whom have never been to the United States before — will spend two full weeks in Santa Barbara, performing their innovative productions of Shakespeare’s plays, meeting like-minded Americans and others, and engaging in a ritual celebration not only of Shakespeare, but of theater and of the life it represents.
The logistics alone would have stopped most impresarios, but John Blondell is sanguine about the ongoing commitment he has made to importing, feeding, housing, and compensating a large new group of international performers for this event — which is planned for every other year starting this month. When I asked him what was most difficult about getting the festival together, he named the fundraising and the visa process, but in the same breath he praised the board of the festival, and in particular Jim Stern, along with the Lobero Theatre, for making it all possible. Blondell, whose Lit Moon Theatre Company has remained remarkably active for its entire 15-year existence, has the enthusiasm of a true believer when it comes to the social role of theater and art in the community. He sees the festival as a natural outgrowth of Lit Moon’s original mission, which is to investigate what he calls “the landscape of contemporary performance.”
Lit Moon’s preoccupation with the innovations of contemporary performance practice is what makes the festival special and different. Unlike most traditional Shakespeare festivals, this one did not spring from a desire to embrace all things Shakespearean, or even to showcase the writings of the great man it celebrates. It grew instead out of Lit Moon’s participation in another festival half the world away in Gdansk, Poland. Blondell recalls the serendipitous encounter that began his journey this way: “I was reading American Theatre magazine in 2003 and there was a small display ad for a Shakespeare festival in Gdansk, Poland. I didn’t know anything else about it, but we had been to Eastern Europe before as a company, and I had a proposal under way for a new production of Hamlet, so I sent it off, and we were accepted.” When he got there, Blondell discovered a thriving festival with a new mission and a fascinating history.
What the Lit Moon players walked into that summer of 2004 was a city with a history of Shakespearean productions stretching back all the way to when Shakespeare himself was alive. In the early seventeenth century, Gdansk was a wealthy and important center for trade, culture, and science. Dominated by a Puritan oligarchy of well-educated men from all over Europe, including several originally from England and Scotland, Gdansk lived most of the year under a general ban on public entertainments. All the pent-up energy of the city thus came to be released during the only officially sanctioned time of revelry: the three-week summer festival known as St. Dominic’s Fair. It was as guests and entertainers at this annual public festival that English players — including company members who had worked directly with Shakespeare — first made their way to Gdansk.
Following on the general success of the English plays presented during St. Dominic’s Fair, a group of wealthy Gdansk citizens began in 1610 to build what became known as the Gdansk Fencing School. Because of its large stage, this building, which ostensibly existed in order to house fencing practices and competitions, became a year-round home for actors, musicians, animal acts, jugglers, and acrobats. The structure was modeled on the Fortune Theatre in London, and it survived as a functioning theater for more than 200 years, until the early nineteenth century. Archival evidence recently discovered in Gdansk demonstrates conclusively that the Fencing School was home to some of the earliest known examples of international productions of Shakespeare.
Flash forward some 400 years, and the Lit Moon Theatre Company arrives after its own global pilgrimage from Santa Barbara to Poland to find that not only does the St. Dominic’s Fair still exist, but there is a plan underway to rebuild the Fencing School as a new Gdansk Theatre on the very spot where the original once stood. In its mission statement, the organization behind this project, the Theatrum Gedanense Foundation, quotes from a historical document found in the Gdansk hall of records. It is an application to the Gdansk city council for a permit to perform filed in 1616 by two English actors, John Green and Robert Reynolds. Their statement, with its resounding Shakespearean echoes, is as relevant today as it was nearly 400 years ago: ¶The way of the world can not be more artfuly presented than in Comedies and Tragedies, which like a mirror represent and show all men’s lives and natures, both good and evil, that everyone may see and recognize himself therein. This art was valued above all measure by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and with no doubt continue as long as the world exists. It is also loved and admired by all knowledgeable people in our own times, so that it now fnds its way into and subsists in various tongues and manners.
John Blondell, already a devotee of the Eastern European school of contemporary performance, and a certified Shakespeare nut, had found his sacred place. Here was a city on the verge of resurrecting a tradition as old as Shakespeare that began as an international experience. All they needed was the support of an international community. From England, they already had HRH The Prince of Wales as their inaugural patron, and within their own country backers included famed film director Andrzej Wajda and writer Jerzy Limon. To bring the Gdansk Theatre to Santa Barbara, along with the best of their annual festival’s European participants — this would be something worth doing.
And so the project we are about to witness began to take shape just two short years ago. Hamlet hits the Porter Theatre stage on Thursday, October 12 at 7 p.m., and the festival won’t stop until Prospero steps out at Center Stage Theater on Sunday, October 22 to deliver the epilogue to The Tempest:
now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own, Which is most faint. Now ’tis true, I must be here confin’d by you, Or sent to Naples. Let me not Since I have my dukedom got, And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell; But release me from my bands With the help of your good hands. Gentle breath of yours my sails Must fill, or else my project fails, Which was to please. Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; And my ending to despair Unless I be reliev’d by prayer, Which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself, and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.
Like Prospero, the Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival will enchant this island of culture but for a short time. It awaits the indulgence of your attention, and the help of your good hands to set it free. Take a chance on change and become a part of the great Shakespeare migration, for without our gentle breath to fill its sails, the project fails. What follows is a rundown of the theater companies participating and their various productions. Go now, for the bard is with you.
Lit Moon Theatre With three full productions in the festival, host company Lit Moon is the most prolific contributor. For Hamlet, which will open the 10-day event, Lit Moon collaborates with Czech designer Milon Kalis. A gigantic sheet of paper dominates the set, and throughout the evening the four actors will draw and write on it, rip holes in it, and speak and act through those holes. Jim Connolly will perform the one-man musical score live and onstage. In Eastern European performance tradition, expect an intense, condensed, and multi-faceted Hamlet that focuses the sprawling text down to prismatically altered key passages.
In their groundbreaking production of King Richard II, Lit Moon uses the church and the rectory of Trinity Episcopal Church to create a mobile spectacle in which the audience travels between differently configured versions of the two spaces over the course of the evening. A fascinating experiment in stage perspective, this King Richard II demands to be seen by those interested in site-specific theater. The Lit Moon’s world premiere at the festival is an intimate production of The Tempest in which the audience of just 70 people will be seated onstage, among the actors. Taking the innovative participatory style of King Richard II a step further, this Tempest is sure to be the talk of the festival.
Teatr Antonie-Kalis Billed as That (Famous Scottish) Play out of respect for the age-old theatrical superstition against saying the name “Macbeth” out loud, this collaboration between designer Milon Kalis and Czech dancer/choreographer Antonie Svobodova promises deconstruction and dance, all to the tune of Shakespeare’s shortest, darkest, and most frightening tragedy.
Canis Tempus This company from Montreal was founded in 2005 by Lit Moon alumnus Andy Cuk. Canis Tempus will be using masks created by Santa Barbara’s Lesley Finlayson, along with dance and dramatic movement in the first of the festival’s two productions of Romeo & Juliet. This one, however, is reversed — Juliet & Romeo.
Teatr Modjeska From Legnica, Poland, Teatr Modjeska enjoys a reputation throughout Europe for hair-raising productions in unlikely spaces. Expect the unexpected as these wild ones assault the interior of our own Lobero Theatre with their highly acrobatic style, honed in abandoned buildings throughout Poland and Eastern Europe. Teatr Modjeska will perform Othello in Polish, with accompanying English libretto.
Erik Ehn Ehn directs the highly regarded theater and performance program at CalArts. He will be performing Rogue, his one-man show investigating the backstory of Hamlet. Ehn belongs to the small elite of truly visionary theater artists working today. This is a rare chance to catch him in an intimate setting performing his version of what is perhaps the most important work of literature in the world. If you care about literature, performance, or ideas, you won’t want to miss it. Free.
Theatre Artists Group, Santa Barbara Risa Brainin and Irwin Appel of the UCSB Drama Department team up to produce Timon of Athens, one of Shakespeare’s least-performed, most-misunderstood tragedies. Appel has given us several compelling performances recently in secondary roles. It will be exciting to see him open up as the world-weary Timon.
State Puppet Theatre of Bourgas, Bulgaria Hristina Arsenova won the Ikar Award last year for running Bulgaria’s best puppet theater. See these traditional puppets take on Shakespeare’s ever-charming comedy of forest idyll and masquerade, As You Like It. In English.
Bulgarian National Theatre Lilia Abadjieva’s dance-theater version of Romeo and Juliet, performed by a cast of six male dancers, is one of the festival’s most anticipated productions. Co-produced by UCSB Arts and Lectures at the Lobero, this Romeo & Juliet is billed as satirical, and director Abadjieva is described as “notorious,” all adding up to another can’t-miss production. In Bulgarian, with English supertitles.