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ND Shakespeare Festival announces next season

| Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Last week, the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival announced the lineup for its 2018 season. The festival will feature the professional company’s performances of “Othello” and the touring company’s performances of “The Merchant of Venice.” The festival also includes Shakespeare After Hours, an adults-only evening performance, and ShakeScenes, an all-ages performance, both of which are comprised of scenes from various plays. Grant Mudge, artistic director of the festival, said this coming season’s plays center on Shakespeare’s perspective on “the excluded, the outsider or the stranger in our midst.”

Courtesy of Jason Comerford

“That allows us to take a look at race, immigration and religion,” Mudge said. “And when you’re talking about looking at religion, you’re definitely going to have “The Merchant of Venice” and obviously we can’t really look at Shakespeare’s treatment of race and not have “Othello” on the stage.”

Part of the mission of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, the larger organization of which the Shakespeare Festival is a part, is to foster conversation in on both a local and global scale about Shakespeare’s continued applicability today.

“We decided that we’re given the most wonderful privilege of a fairly sizable megaphone in the theatre and that, coupled with the fact that Shakespeare was wrestling with these same issues … 400 years ago, provided a rare opportunity to say, ‘How much is progress in our world and how much are we prone to the occasional slide backwards?’” Mudge said.

The touring company is comprised entirely of students from the festival’s apprentice program, which seeks to provide students with the opportunity to learn the about every part of the theatrical production process. The company includes students from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross, as well as students from universities in every region. All apprentices are also cast in the professional company, where they work alongside professional actors from across the country.

“That affords the very rare opportunity to be on stage with a Tony Award–winner,” Mudge said. “We’re able to draw talent that’s certainly as world-class as it gets.”

This year, Mudge is particularly excited about the lead actor in “Othello,” Esau Pritchett, who has extensive experience on the stage, in film and on television and has appeared on “Orange is the New Black.” The director of “Othello” is Cameron Knight of DePaul’s theatre school, who starred in last festivals’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Jemma Alix Levy, of Washington and Lee University and Muse of Fire Theatre Company, will be directing “The Merchant of Venice.” Both plays will be more contemporary productions, Mudge said.

“The touring company plays in found and green spaces a lot on tour, as well as amphitheatres … but as often as not they’re out there on the grass in a kind of ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ style, and that means it’s usually a lighter design in terms of costuming so the actors can really keep moving in the heat, and a lighter scenic touch because you’re unloading and packing it back up every night when we’re out on tour,” Mudge said.

The touring company travels across northern Indiana, from Chicago to Fort Wayne. Their productions are free and open to the public, broadening their target audience from avid theatre-goers, to those with little or no experience of plays.

“On tour, it’s not only theatre lovers and Shakespeare lovers, but because we’re arriving in these communities and those performances are free, we just as often have folks who’ve never seen a Shakespeare play before or have never even seen a play before,” Mudge said.

Mudge said Shakespeare’s ability to tackle issues seemingly intrinsic to human nature allows his plays to transcend time. He said one of his favorite quotes is from Peter Holland, associate dean for the arts and the McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare Studies. 

“He said, ‘Shakespeare is the most extraordinary writer of imaginative drama that has ever lived’ and it’s quite true,” Mudge said. “Here we are, looking at these plays and kind of expecting them to have gone out of date or out of understanding but no, he’s writing about a human truth that extends way beyond his own time frame.”

Mudge also emphasized the particular power of “The Merchant of Venice to challenge the audience to reflect on their own biases and prejudices.

“As others were content to put caricatures of Jewish people on stage, Shakespeare puts one of the most heartfelt and heartbreaking speeches about justice ever written into Shylock’s mouth,” Mudge said. “Shakespeare turns us on our heads and makes us ask why this character is a villain and what are our own attitudes toward him in the audience as well. … t’s a terrific way to afford us the opportunity for significant introspection.”

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