"All things that we ordained festival, turn from their office to black funeral;

Our instruments to melancholy bells, our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast,

Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change, our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse.

And all things change them to the contrary."

He was just sayin'.

W. Shakespeare, that is.

In Act IV, Scene V, of "Romeo and Juliet."

But not ALL change is "to the contrary," as the Bard posited in that flight of tragic fancy, with all those healthy young bodies going through the ultimate bad change ... from the flower of youth to the void of death.

With the impending 41st season of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival next summer already in place (July 5-Aug. 10), there are some intriguing/exciting evolutionary changes afoot that promise to make it a theatrical affair to remember.

Chief among them: The decision to move forward with two open-air productions on the Theatre at Ewing stage and one under cover on the Illinois State University campus.

With no "wedding cheer turning to sad burial feast" whatsoever.

That interior format was given a test run during the 40th season by staging the entire stretch of "I Heart Juliet" inside at ISU's Westhoff Theater, primarily for technical reasons (each rapper/actor in the cast had to be miked, a feat not yet possible at Ewing).

The entire performance run sold out before opening night, along with three performances added later.

And now, before any further ado, here are the three newly unveiled 2018 season offerings:

  • "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (not seen at the ISF since 2010);
  • "Henry V" (last staged in 2007);
  • "Shakespeare in Love" (a fest premiere, serving as the annual "new or newer play in the spirit of the Bard," per new fest artistic director John C. Stark).

"Merry Wives" and "Henry V" get the stars, moonlight and Ewing stage; "Shakespeare in Love" gets the air conditioning, roof and inside stage ... ISU's Center for the Performing Arts.

"Performing one of our three shows inside this fine theater space addresses two of our biggest challenges with the Ewing space," says Stark.

"First, artistically we have the use of lighting and other stage effects that are just not possible with an outdoor venue.

"Secondly, we will be able to do matinees for the first time, attracting new groups, and not have to worry about rain canceling a show."

The other big change — a festival first — will be the spacing out of opening weeks for each of the three plays: "Merry Wives" opens July 5-7, followed a week later by "Henry V" (July 12-14), followed a week later by "Shakespeare in Love" (July 19-22).

That staggered approach will "give our actors and production staff a week to focus primarily on one play at a time just before opening, and then at least three public performances to solidify each show," says William Prenevost, a former ISF actor from way back who just finished his first season as managing director.

Bottom line: "We'll have all three shows in better shape at the moment they are previewed."

Prenevost's only major misgiving this past season was seeing how quickly "I Heart Juliet" sold out its 120 seats each night of its run, with no wiggle room to accommodate more.

"If we had had a larger venue, we could have done much better," he says of the approximate 2,000 tickets sold versus the 4,000 for "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which had the Ewing Theatre's more generous 430 seats.

Hence, next summer's indoors move from Westhoff to the 500-seat CPA Theatre next door.

A patron survey taken over the summer showed that 17 percent to 18 percent of the ISF audience still prefers "the full outdoor experience," says Prenevost.

"But the majority of the respondents said that are fans of the festival and the theater we produce, and that 'whatever you do we're there'."

Top hats off to Penguins: Congrats and a hearty round of wing-claps to The Penguin Project, the Peoria-founded theater program with 26 companies nationwide, including the one right here in McLean County.

The program is the winner of the 2017 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, billed as the nation's highest honor for such programs. 

Founded in 2004, The Penguin Project gives children, teens and young adults with special needs an opportunity to star in a community theater production.

The program was chosen from a pool of 350 nominations and 50 finalists.

In addition to the national recognition, The Penguin Project will receive $10,000 to support its programming and engage more young people from the community.

Dan Craft is Pantagraph entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-829-9000, Ext. 259 or via email at dcraft@pantagraph.com 

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