Castle Theatre Festival fuses Shakespeare, 1930s New Orleans

August 10, 2018
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Renaissance Now's "Twelfth Night" cast.

A Provo theater festival kicking off this week aims to put an interesting twist on two Shakespearean classics.

The Castle Theatre Festival will feature a musical interpretation of “Twelfth Night” set in 1930s New Orleans and an experimental theater version of “The Tempest” by New York City-based company Renaissance Now Theatre and Film.

The production of “Twelfth Night,” which features a diverse cast, combines William Shakespeare’s play — which includes the famous line, “If music be the food of love, play on” — with the story of how jazz-era New Orleans became a more integrated culture through music, according to director Kathy Curtiss.

“They decided to play together despite what was in the past more culturally acceptable to have your own (segregated) quarter, and all kinds of races and all kinds of people were mixing up, and the quality of the music and individuals and their talent became what was featured,” Curtiss said.

The director said in light of events like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ’ recent “ Be One ” celebration, this felt like a good year to jump on the “integration bandwagon.”

“We’ve dealt a lot with gender issues and male-female relationships and power struggles and power struggles in the workplace and all of that last year, and this year, we really, really wanted to hit it on the head and talk about integration and about prejudice and about coming to understand one another for the deeper value that all these mix of cultures can have,” Curtiss said.

Curtiss enlisted the help of music director Marvin Payne to introduce jazz and blues music into Renaissance Now’s production, during which Payne has at times replaced lyrics in the original script with jazz-era songs and at other times created music to match Shakespeare’s original lyrics.

“Just like real jazz was, you would get in the mood and you go for it and the music comes out of you, he just did that,” Curtiss said. “He just created jazz songs with the Shakespeare text in a number of places where they are integrated into the script.”

Payne, who also plays acting roles in both of the plays at this year’s festival, said he thinks the addition of jazz music into Renaissance Now’s “Twelfth Night” helps to make the interpretation more genuine.

“I think it just makes the whole thing a little bit more authentic, makes the setting a little bit more real,” Payne said.

Renaissance Now’s experimental theater interpretation of “The Tempest,” which debuted at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival and will show one night only at the Castle Theatre Festival, will combine physical theater movements with symbolic work through projections, Curtiss said.

“It’s rather a lovely concept, particularly if you already know a little bit about ‘The Tempest,’ it will be a refreshing and interesting, and I think thought-provoking thing to see,” Payne said.

The festival also will include a series of preshow events, including presentations from the plays’ directors, BYU professors and others on subjects ranging from gender and social identity issues in “Twelfth Night” to combat in renaissance history versus modern times.

Payne said he thinks these events will help audience members digest the messages of the plays.

“What they are is just little presentations in the preshow that are designed to set up the play and also give some background for why we’re doing it the way we are, but also to communicate some helpful information about Shakespeare and what he was about and about New Orleans at that period of time and what it was about, largely regarding the impact of what was going on in New Orleans on the forthcoming Civil Rights Movement because the music was a great integrator,” Payne said.

This year’s Castle Theatre Festival is the fourth since the festival was revived by Renaissance Now in 2015 following a 20-year run that began in 1989. The event has traditionally taken place at Castle Amphitheater, a castle-like outdoor stage and seating structure located east of Utah State Hospital in Provo.

Renaissance Now’s goal with the Castle Theatre Festival is to perform updated works that make Shakespeare’s language relevant and understandable while exposing viewers to modern themes and issues, according to Curtiss.

“(We want) to illumine those classic texts and find relevance in social issues, so that people can form a community where they can feel like they can get closer to the great authors and the great writings and come to understand them in their own context as well as understand the language for themselves in a better and stronger way,” Curtiss said.

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