Shakespeare Festival returns with a performance showcasing lighter side of The Bard

The Grand Valley Shakespeare Festival returns this year with a mainstage performance as well as other programs that are part of the tradition of entertaining audiences and training theater students as part of the longest-running such festival in Michigan.

The festival will present "The Merry Wives of Windsor" Oct. 7-15 in the Louis Armstrong Theatre at the Haas Center for Performing Arts. The presentation includes both evening and matinee performances.

This performance of Shakespeare is an opportunity to present something lighter, with more physical comedy and farce, and with a smaller cast and a guest actor and outside director, said James Bell, associate professor of theater and the festival's managing director.

"It’s a different style of Shakespeare," Bell said. "Sometimes people have this reverence for Shakespeare and forget he was an entertainer. It’s good for students to see a lighter shade of Shakespeare — this is certainly not 'King Lear' or 'Hamlet.' It's light, fun and entertaining." 

Four people stand in a line. Two people in the middle laugh while clasping hands. The other two smirk at each other.
Some members of the cast, from left: Jarod Jeffery, Anna Compton, Hannah Cooke and Christian Lee

After enduring the kinds of challenges that befell so many in the theater community during the pandemic, Bell said he is excited for the return of K-12 students to matinee performances to help introduce Shakespeare to a new generation. The festival's outreach also includes Bard to Go tour, which brings Shakespeare to K-12 schools, and the Festival Greenshow, a 15-minute production presented in full Renaissance dress.

The Shakespeare Festival also presents an important training opportunity for students, especially those who dream of a career on stage, Bell said.

"The reality for students who want to go into acting is that Shakespeare festivals around the country employ a lot of actors, and there is a lot of Shakespeare performed around the country because it's still popular," Bell said. "Shakespeare can move you with phrasing and ideas about humanity that are really profound and then it can make you fall on the ground laughing at some of the escapades.

"A lot of students come in with a fear that it's something they can't understand or it's language that they're not familiar with. So we try to get past that and get down to the actual story and the actual humanity."

Three people smile and one person smirks. They are members of a cast for a theater production and are in character.
Two people smile, one person smirks and one scowls. They are members of a cast for a theater production and are in character.
Audiences will experience comedy during "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

Indeed, grasping the language, including its rhythm and symbolism, helped Anna Compton, a theater major, fully appreciate Shakespeare. Compton is playing "Mistress Ford" in this production, a role that Compton cherishes because of the strong presence of the character in the comedy.

"I think a lot of people are intimidated by the language, but once you have an instructor to teach you about it, it's like learning an art form," Compton said. "A lot of people don't think you can do it, but you can. You just need the right tools in your tool box." 

The production's guest actor, Jacob Miller, '20, agreed that understanding the language unlocks the genius of Shakespeare. Miller was in several Shakespeare shows while at Grand Valley and jumped at the chance to play "Falstaff" in this production when contacted by Bell.

Miller, who is currently working in the scene shop for Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, said it is important as the guest actor to be a professional mentor for students, even though they are only a few years apart. 

"If I, as the guest artist, will take risks, then they will be more willing to be creative and take risks and try new things during rehearsal," Miller said.


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