The American Shakespeare Center will present multiple performances March 10-14 of three classic plays, which are just a few of the many events during the 13th annual Murray Shakespeare Festival at Murray State University.
This year’s festival will feature three plays by William Shakespeare: The tragedy “Othello,” the history play “Henry IV, Part 1” and the comedy “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” The American Shakespeare Center of Staunton (pronounced Stan-ton), Va. has performed in Murray every year except for one since MSU started the festival in 2002, said Rusty Jones, assistant professor of English at MSU and the chair of the Murray Shakespeare Festival.
Jones said the troupe of talented actors always loves coming back, and that local audiences have grown to have their favorites over the years. One of the recognizable faces is that of the hilarious Rick Blunt, who will play the duplicitous Iago in “Othello” and the fat knight Sir John Falstaff in both “Henry IV, Part 1” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” In addition to the performances, the actors will participate in several fun and educational workshops for MSU students and community members on campus and at Playhouse in the Park.
“Othello” is the most well-known of the plays and tells the story of Othello, the Moor of Venice, who is manipulated by his trusted advisor Iago into thinkfing that his beloved wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful. “Henry IV, Part 1” is the second play in a tetralogy that also includes “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 2” and what Jones said was probably the best-known, “Henry V.” Jones said that although past festivals have featured many tragedies and comedies, the ASC actors have not performed one of Shakespeare’s history plays in Murray before.
“In the 14-year history of the festival, we’ve never had a Shakespearean history play, and this is a good one to come through because because it’s by no means a boring recitation of English kings and queens,” Jones said. “It’s a coming-of-age story where Prince Hal (the future King Henry V) has to reconcile with his disappointed father and take on the mantle of responsibility. So it’s very much a coming-of-age story instead of a boring engagement with English history.”
Falstaff is a loud, drunken comic character who is one of Prince Hal’s disreputable companions in “Henry IV, Part 1,” and is also one of the main characters in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” In that play, Falstaff comes to Windsor without any money, and so attempts to remedy his problem by courting two wealthy married women. Jones said legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I loved the Falstaff character from the two “Henry IV” plays that she commanded Shakespeare to write a play in which he was “undone by two women.”
Jones said that because attendance was so good last year, MSU was able to provide additional performances and workshops this year. In addition to the 7 p.m. performances of “Henry IV, part 1” on March 10, “Othello” on March 11 and “Windsor” on March 13, there will be two daytime “Othello” performances and one daytime “Henry” performance. Those performances are targeted at field trips for schools around the region, but are also open to the public.
Two grants will benefit the festival this year, including one from South Arts, which provides money for professional artistic performances by companies traveling to theatrically underserved regions. The second is from the MSU Office of Regional Outreach, and it will help fund performances on the condition that the students who come to the daytime performances fill out surveys before and after the plays asking about their familiarity and understanding of the play they have previously studied in class.
“We’re hoping that the data will demonstrate something that we already know, which is that performance has a measurable, positive impact on both comprehension and appreciation,” Jones said. “That’s very much in line with what the president’s office and the Office of Regional Outreach want us to do and wants to see, because this program’s been going on for 14 years and we know we have value for all the teachers in the region and for the teachers here at Murray State, but the ability to quantify that is something else that’s new this year.
“It’s something we all know when we see a kid walk into the performance looking like he or she is going to the dentist’s office and then the same kid walking out just really, really bright and excited about what they’ve seen and able to talk about it in a more sophisticated way ... it’s something you really only gain through watching an actor bringing emotional, human range to what’s on the page.”
For more information on the American Shakespeare Center, visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com. A printable full schedule of the festival’s performances, workshops, lectures and other events can be viewed at www.murraystate.edu/shakespeare.