"People have enough serious stuff going on," says Brad Robbert, now in his 13th year as the festival's director of operations. "It's time for some laughter. We've always had very good success with histories and dramas and what not. But right now was really the time to do some nice, lighthearted, fun stuff."
Robbert and company haven't done away with all of the drama, however. The Bard without conflict is like Stanley without Stella, and in keeping with previous seasons 2007 smartly featured the war commentaries Henry V and Coriolanus the 2008 program is built around a similar, albeit sillier, theme: the battle of the sexes in New Orleans. This means that instead of Petruchio taming the shrewish Kate in 1300s Padua, he'll be doing it to the music of Louis Prima in a mid-century Crescent City.
"It's set in the Italian-American community of the '50s," Robbert explains. "I think it works great. [The setting] came out of brainstorming between (Artistic Director) Ron Gural and (Associate Artistic Director) Jim Fitzmorris. And we also collaborated with a wonderful costume designer, Elizabeth Parent, who is from New Orleans and, without giving away anyone's age, was quite around during the '50s."
He laughs before adding: "I don't know if she'd want to admit that. Elizabeth was very much in an Italian family in the '50s, and I think many of the costumes she didn't even have to do research on she lived it. She was able to go, 'Oh, I remember Aunt so-and-so had this on for the wedding. And these guys wore seersucker and what have you.'"
To bring the New Orleans of old back to bustling life, David Rafel, the festival's set designer, created mobile milieus that quickly transport the actors around the city. "One moment you're in the spumoni ice cream parlor, the next you're at the old Texaco filling station," Robbert says. "The final scene, the wedding, of course, is this big Italian celebration. It all came together beautifully."
Shrewdly, the opening-night gala is meant to mirror that opulent scene. The soiree, set for Saturday, May 31, will be catered by several area Italian eateries, effectively placing the audience at center stage. "Right after seeing this wedding scene onstage, [everyone] gets to come out and have their own celebration," Robbert says.
The three-week run of Shrew is technically a reprisal. A January remount of the previous season's headliner, produced for New Orleans schoolchildren with a mostly intact cast, is a festival tradition. For the first time, the January '08 staging featured a preview of an upcoming production.
"In the past it's always been one of the summer shows remounted with hopefully 80 to 90 percent of the same cast," Robbert explains. "In this case, we needed a show to go up for January, so we had to do Shrew first. The second show, As You Like It, will then be remounted in January of '09."
The festival selects its material largely with the students in mind, Robbert says. "Anything that they're studying (A) Midsummer (Night's Dream), Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and Caesar is an instant sell. Others have to be ones that they are at least familiar with and willing to take a chance on. Shrew and As You Like It are more familiar than, say, Titus, which might not be appropriate for middle school children anyway," he says.
Educational programming titled "Shakespeare Alive!" was launched in January 1997 with a staging of Macbeth for area students. It has since included annual intern productions and a traveling in-school instructional session dubbed "Shakespeare on the Road." In 2007, the programming expanded to feature a high school training camp called "All Things Shakespeare!" in which students get the chance to rehearse and perform a full-scale work.
"This year, it's Twelfth Night," Robbert says. "It's designed for students in grades 9-12, and it's been hugely successful. Last year, I think, in the production (of Macbeth) we had 25 to 27 students participating. We're using the set from the last show in this case from As You Like It. It's fully costumed, and lit by Marty Sachs, who's lighting the two big shows as well. So they're really having an opportunity to be part of a real show."
Imparting a younger generation with a love of Shakespeare is, according to Robbert, one of the chief pleasures of producing the festival. "I think this year we did seven performances in the daytime, and some of them were packed to the walls," he says. "We had students from all over the state and Mississippi. For a lot of them, particularly the public school students, it's the first theater they've seen, period."
The efforts are particularly important in light of the educational shortcomings in post-Katrina New Orleans, where drama and performing arts programs have been among the hardest hit. The supplemental material is funded in large part through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, whose sponsored "Shakespeare in American Communities: Shakespeare For a New Generation" initiative recently bestowed upon the festival its fifth consecutive award.
"They like to do a release around Shakespeare's birthday every year (the last week of April)," Robbert says. "[It's] tremendously exciting for us. We applied the second year of the program (in 2004), which was the first year they opened it up to theaters all over the region. We've applied for and received it every year since then."
And henceforth, for a handful of midsummer nights, a dream that began in 1993 lives on.
Shakespeare Festival at Tulane
The Taming of the Shrew
7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., May 29-31; 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 1; through June 14 (special talk-back performance 7:30 p.m. Wed., June 11)
As You Like It
7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 1:30 p.m. Sun, June 26-July 12 (special talk-back performance 7:30 p.m. Wed., July 9)
7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., July 23-26
Tulane University, Dixon Annex, Lupin Theatre, 865-5105; www.neworleansshakespeare.com
Tickets $25 general admission, $22 students, $12.50 children 12-under (May 29-30 and June 26-27 previews half-price; June 1 and 29 performances pay-what-you-will; Twelfth Night $12.50 general admission)