BLOOMINGTON – Recipe for what just might be the most intriguing and provocative season in the 37-year history of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival:

Take three separate-but-equal plays – two by W.S., one by another (who, incidentally, is not afraid to cast Shakespeare himself as a supporting character).

Juxtapose the three plays so that they dovetail into each other for those savvy enough to set aside three midsummer night's eves (or, thanks to the fest's Sunday matinee policy, midsummer day's afternoons).

Season the three shows with actors whose roles echo or interact with one or more roles from the other shows.

Voila: A summer's worth of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in which, says artistic director Kevin Rich, the plays – “Much Ado About Nothing," “Elizabeth Rex,” “Antony and Cleopatra” – “talk to each other.”

How so?

Imagine this scenario:

“Much Ado About Nothing” -- the best known and loved of the trio -- comes to its boisterous close, resolving all its battling-sexes intrigue between hero Benedick and heroine Beatrice with true Shakespearean elan.

What are its actors to do to come down from their high?

Well …

They could wander off the stage of the Globe and into “Elizabeth Rex,” playwright Timothy Findlay's historical reverie that imagines Queen Elizabeth taking in “Much Ado” on the eve of her lover Essex's execution.

Call it old-school grief management.

The actors we've just seen in “Much Ado” are now playing themselves, including thespian Ned, who was Beatrice on stage (yes, Beatrice, since the women roles in Shakespeare's day were played by men).

Meanwhile, up in the backstage loft, W. Shakespeare is also in attendance, scribbling away on his next opus, “Antony and Cleopatra,” which, by coincidence or no, is about a queen embroiled in a tragic affair with a lover.

W.S. even manages to appropriate some of the dialogue going on down below, between Liz and Ned, on behalf of his wayward Egyptian sinners, Cleo and Tony.

Cue the curtain rising on the net result, “Antony and Cleopatra,” featuring some of the influences witnessed backstage at the Globe, and more.

Thus, the figurative menage a trois going down among the festival's three shows, all in bed together, so to speak, in terms of themes echoing down through history.

"This is a celebration of true repertory theater," says Rich of the interlocking plays, which feature intersecting actors, the same scenic designer and directors who are married off stage.

Rich, himself the director of "Antony and Cleopatra," was inspired to build the season as an interlocking whole when he came across Timothy Findlay's "Elizabeth Rex."

Findlay's imagined meeting between famous historical figures fit the bill for Rich's goal of producing one "new work in the spirit of Shakespeare" each season."

Since Findlay's scenario takes place at the Globe Theater, just as a performance of "Much Ado" has ended, it made perfect sense to schedule it as the first of the season's two authentic Shakespeare works, complete with men playing all the female roles in true period fashion.

That gender issue, notes Rich, is a part of the dialogue between Queen Elizabeth (Deborah Staples), the woman forced to play the man's role as ruler of England, and actor Ned (Christopher Prentice), who has just spent a couple hours as Beatrice in "Much Ado."

With her lover set to be executed the next day, the Queen is in a reflective mood backstage.

"She's talking to a man who plays women (on stage), and she's a woman playing a man, so to speak. 'There's no woman left in me,' she says. It's such a brilliant play, exploring the masculine and the feminine," says Rich.

There's more, thanks to the spectacle of Shakespeare himself (fest veteran/favorite Tom Quinn), billeted above them in the Globe's barn-like loft, designed by Kristin Ellert, who transforms the space to suit each show: spartan for "Elizabeth," glitzy for "Much Ado" and draped in fabrics to suggest the Egyptian/Roman trajectory of "Cleopatra."

"The three shows are so integrated that I decided our set should be united, too, with the same main structure, so that the natural flow of the shows feels the same," says Ellert.

The Bard, as noted, is in the midst of writing "Antony and Cleopatra" while overhearing Ned and the Queen discuss their gender dilemmas, elements of which are appropriated for the drama being hatched.

Deborah Staples, the Milwaukee-based actress who us bringing both iconic royals to life, calls the dual assignment "an actor's dream."

Rich calls her a dream come true for the audience, too: "Deborah is simply stunning."

"What both plays ask," says Staples, "is for the queens to examine their shortcomings and weaknesses ... when a woman is the leader of a kingdom, there's a dance that goes on between the two sides of feminine and masculine."

Adding to the dynamics of these interfacing plays and characters is the fact that "Elizabeth Rex" and "Much Ado" are being directed, apart, by husband and wife theater veterans, Paula Suozzi and Jonathan West.

"I think because of the nature of the season, Kevin, who knew and has worked with both of us, thought this would be a good idea," says Suozzi, former director of the esteemed Milwaukee Shakespeare Company, which folded in 2008.

"Paul's play begins by referencing the end of our production," adds West, noting that it's being staged "in a very traditional manner, in the sense of the style Queen Elizabeth would have seen it played, with only men in the women's roles."

Everyone involved in this year's festival is in agreement that seeing all three plays is the ideal way to take full advantage of the "plays that talk to each other."

The recommended sequence is built into the order of the previews and openings: "Much Ado," "Elizabeth," "Cleopatra."

Adds West, "You can definitely see all three shows separately ... they should stand on their own, and they do.

"Obviously, this is not something we can do every year," confesses Rich. "Each show does stand on its own, but seeing all three will allow you the full experience." 

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