Pennsylvania's Only Shakespeare Festival Introduces August Wilson's FENCES!
Written : By Lori Goldstein
Date : 09-14-2022
There’s little need to trek to Broadway when the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF)–less than an hour from Philadelphia or Upper Bucks County–casts award-winning Equity actors in its musicals, drama, and children’s theater throughout the summer. The festival is situated at De Sales University in Center Valley, PA, in the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts.
Having just completed a run of the beloved Chorus Line, with the original choreography of Michael Bennett and a 15-piece orchestra playing Marvin Hamlisch’s score, PSF is currently staging Shakespeare’s ever-popular Much Ado About Nothing and August Wilson’s American classic Fences.
The former occurs in the intimate black-box 188-seat Schubert Theatre, where the audience sits on three sides of the stage, so that “the action is right there in your lap,” says associate artistic director, Dennis Razze. Fences takes place on the 473-seat Main Stage, where no seat is “further than 25 feet from the stage.”
Razze points out that Matt Pfeiffer, the director of Much Ado About Nothing, is in his 23rd season at PSF. Pfeiffer says, “If I had done Much Ado About Nothing three years ago, I would not have had as great an appreciation for that feeling of coming out of darkness into something that feels like relief or feels like light.” Ironically, Shakespeare’s comedy premiered less than a decade after the bubonic plague shut down London’s theaters.
Photo Credits: Maria Dalmasso and Lee A. Butz. Akeem Davis as Benedick and Brett Ashley Robinson as Beatrice, Akeem Davis as Benedick and Gabe Moses as Claudio
“Shakespeare’s plays were closed several times due to plagues. That is the great thing about Shakespeare. It manages to be this ultimate survivor, and keep coming back. You can’t really put out that fire,” says Razze. “This particular play at this particular time–it really deals with the relationship between truth and reality and rumor. Truth… is very much on our minds in…[today’s] political climate. It also deals with the battle of the sexes, the wonderful relationship between men and women, how they complement each other and come together in the end after butting heads through the entire play.”
Award-winning FENCES will be produced as part of PA’s only Shakespeare Festival.
Razze and Patrick Mulcahy, PSF’s artistic director for the past 19 years, are thrilled to be finally bringing Fences to the Festival. It’s what they’ve dreamed about staging for years. It has an all-star cast led by Tony Todd, who starred in the one-man play, How I Learned What I Learned, also written by August Wilson, last summer.
“It’s a warm play, it’s a family play, there are a lot of terrible things that happen in it, but ultimately at the end of the play, there’s a sense that Troy Maxson’s life was important, it counted for something, and that he did pass on something valuable to his children,” says Razze. “Certainly in the wake of George Floyd and everything that’s happening in terms of racism in our country–a new awareness about it, this play speaks to that as well.”
There will be a point in the season when you can see both plays in one weekend, in the mode of a true festival. Razze explains that normally PSF stages two and often three Shakespeare plays in one season. This season is abbreviated due to the fact that, like many arts organizations, PSF had to cancel its 2020 season and offered a partial season in 2021.
PSF also aims to nurture the future generation of Shakespeare lovers with productions such as Shakespeare for Kids, for which De Sales alumna Erin Sheffield writes a new script each season. Little Red, about Little Red Riding Hood and other familiar fairy-tale characters, was written by Andrew Kane, another alumnus. Additionally, 15 De Sales theater majors perform in a Shakespeare play, this year The Taming of the Shrew. They also understudy many of the roles for the main productions.
While Patrick Mulcahy is stepping down as artistic director and returning to the De Sales faculty to teach theater full-time, he has conceived a PSF 2030 vision with the goal of creating a real home for the Festival, its own space. According to Razze, it currently shares its space with the University’s theater department. “That means the Festival can only [operate] in that window of the summer months when the University isn’t in session. The dream is that by 2030 the festival will have its own theater, its own shops, so that it can come closer to a year-round experience.”
In the meantime, Razze urges one and all to visit the official Shakespeare Festival of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth– home to over 200 artists, including winners and nominees of the Tony, Obie, Emmy, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Jefferson and Barrymore awards. Every summer 40,000-50,000 patrons attend PSF from 30-plus states–over 1,000,000 patrons from 50 states and many countries since 1992.
For a calendar of performances–from now through August 7–and to purchase tickets, consult the PSF website at https://pashakespeare.org or call the box office at 610-282-WILL.