The Michigan Shakespeare Festival opens tonight in Jackson. The festival’s Artistic Director, Janice Blixt, tells WKAR’s Scott Pohl that she took a “go big or go home” approach to picking the plays to mark their 25th year.
"King Lear" is Shakespeare's tragic story of an aging King of Britain and his desire to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters. Blixt says "Lear" is one of those shows that you don't announce unless you have a King Lear. Her Lear is John Lepard, well known as an actor and as Executive Director of the Williamston Theatre. She continues that "He’s also one of those people that, when you see him, you go ‘oh, that guy,’ because he’s been so much on television and in movies and in small roles here and there. Having John made that one an easy choice. That is our flagship show. And yes, that show is dark.”
We point out how dark Lear is to explain the festival’s typical approach of staging both a Shakespearean tragedy and a comedy each season. For this year’s comedy, Blixt turned to “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Two Gents is well known for its themes of the pursuit of love and mistaken identities. This will be the first time it’s staged at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. Blixt says despite its notoriety, many festival goers have told her they’ve never seen it. “That show is about 90 minutes, there’s no intermission. We have six actors playing all of the characters in it, so there’s a lot of jokes about character changes, and all of them at some point play a dog," continues Blixt. "For anyone who’s thinking Shakespeare might be a little scary or something difficult to sit through, this is a great primer.”
The other show selection tradition at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival is a third classic that wasn’t written by Shakespeare. For that show this season, Blixt has selected “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the tale of a charming, lovelorn man whose enormous nose hobbles his romantic self-confidence, a story that has inspired adaptations like the 1987 Steve Martin film “Roxanne.”
For Blixt, staging "Cyrano" was similar to choosing "Lear" in the desire for an actor able to throw himself into the role. "That means I need to find an actor who is a terrific fighter, who has the charm that my audiences expect and appreciate."
She describes herself as lucky to have such an actor available: her husband, David Blixt. He's been the festival's fight director for ten years.
If you want to think of that casting as nepotism, go right ahead. Blixt has also cast her children, 13-year-old Dashiell 12-year-old Evelyn, in small parts with their dad.
All three shows are staged at Jackson’s Baughman Theatre from July 11th through the 28th. The Michigan Shakespeare Festival then moves to the Village Theatre in Canton from August 2nd through the 18th.
The Michigan Shakespeare Festival is a WKAR underwriter.