For 25 years now, Cape Fear Shakespeare on the Green has been filling up seats across Wilmington—from the de Rosset House (City Club) to its home now at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. They have spread he gospel of the Bard to locals with free productions held every May and June.
It all began in the early ‘90s, when UNCW professor Stan Norman (known as Dr. Stan to friends and students) gathered with other like-minded Shakespeareans to help procure funds from the City of Wilmington, our then Arts Council of the Lower Cape Fear, along with private donations. Their first shows, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “As You Like It,” debuted before Memorial Day weekend 1993. In 2017 Cape Fear Shakespeare will return to its roots and put on the two plays that helped launch its educational, entertaining and enlightening work in community theatre for more than two decades.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to be a part of a company that gives such a great gift to our community,” artistic director Cherri McKay says.
McKay has been overseeing the company since 2003 when Michael Granberry—now an Emmy Award winner, well-known for his puppetry work—turned over the reins. In 2005 McKay upstarted the youth company of Shakespeare on the Green. This year they will be doing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with a cast of 26 performers, including lead roles taken on by Emily Cornwell, Chloe Mason, Henry Fox, Aidan Malone, Gracie Cole, and Casey Burton. Known as one of Shakespeare’s most popular works worldwide, the plot follows the marriage of the Duke of Athens to the former Queen of Amazons and the shenanigans taking place around the marriage from four young Athenian lovers and a bunch of fairies who inhabit the forest, where the play is set. McKay enjoys the opportunity to launch kids into what is often their first foray into Shakespeare.
“We spend quite a bit of time doing table work, deciphering not only the Elizabethan language but also the complicated verse that is their dialogue,” she tells. “They come eager to learn and understand. They know how important the job is of telling the story truthfully through character.”
The adult company will be putting on “As You Like It,” and in true Cape Fear Shakespeare fashion, McKay has chosen a director this year which appropriately mirrors the foundation of the company itself. Much like the first year saw Ed Wagenseller (who is now a UNCW theatre professor) direct the show, after having been a student of Dr. Stan, McKay asked UNCW theatre professor Christopher Marino and one of his former students, Nick Reed, to oversee the 2017 production. “I was scratching my head, trying to come up with a 25th anniversary theme,” she tells. “The phrase ‘full circle’ kept running through my head. I then thought, What if we recreate the first season with as many of the same key components as possible. The puzzle came together beautifully.”
After McKay and Marino’s first coffee date, which lasted three hours, she knew he would be a great fit. His knowledge of Shakespeare exceptionally deep; locals likely have seen it firsthand in his direction of “Measure for Measure” last year and Dram Tree Shakespeare’s launch with “Macbeth” two years ago. McKay says, “Chris is just a super nice person. Cape Fear Shakespeare and UNCW have had a 25-year connection. UNCW students have always been a huge part of our seasons. Chris is highly respected by them. He seemed genuinely happy to work with CFS, and help to continue to keep the UNCW connection strong.”
Marino knew Reed would be a good fit, especially since he trained his student with “textual sensibility.” He trusted in Reed’s hand to appropriately use the tools given to bring out the best in the themes of the play, all of which include human frailty and fragility, forgiveness and the overall power of love.
“It also plays with gender,” Marino tells. “This is the only Shakespeare play that has a quadruple reversal of gender in the original playing of it. Originally, [Rosalind] would have been a boy actor playing a girl, disguising herself as a boy, and then role-playing as a girl with Orlando—four changes in all.”
Arianna Tysinger is taking on the role of Rosalind and Matt Carter will play Orlando. Reed says their chemistry is palpable since they’ve worked with each other so much in the past.
“I wanted a cast that I trust to be able to come up with ideas I never would have thought of, and who are open for anything,” he tells. “The character of Rosalind can’t do this flawlessly, and that’s what makes her scenes so engaging and keeps the character from being a manipulative savant, and instead makes her a person hopelessly in love.”
The choice for the role to pretend to be a man was a practical one in the play. Mainly, it revolves around safety as women were oppressed significantly four centuries ago when the play debuted. Though we’ve come a long way since 1623, women still aren’t completely treat equal.
“I have had female friends pretend to be on the phone with their boyfriend in order to feel safe while pumping gas,” Reed tells. “Sadly, the decision the characters make to protect themselves isn’t that far off of what happens now.”
While Reed’s hand has been the guiding factor of the show, he has leaned on Marino as a mentor and for advice. In fact, he’s been an incredible asset, according to Reed. “And soon he’s going to come in and see the full show that I have developed with his guidance, and that may be the most stressful point in the show for me. But I’m very excited for that level of stress.”
Yet, Reed’s love for theatre and Shakespeare has thwarted pre-show jitters. Cape Fear Shakespeare has provided him a level of spirited fun he has not had in working with Shakespeare beforehand. “Most Shakespeare shows have walked a fine line between unknown and too well-known,” he explains. “With this show a general audience will know just enough to not be lost when they enter, but they will not know enough to come in with any expectations. As a director this gives me a lot to work with and experiment with.”
The set design for both “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” keep within the forest theme. Becky Cornwell and a group of company artists and actors are constructing it. Costuming will be done by Lindsay Payne and Skylar Niedziela for “As You Like It,” with Henry Fox shadowing McKay in “Midsummer.” John McCall will handle light design.
“Watching both companies bring Shakespeare’s words to life onstage is rewarding—each actor, young and old, flourishing in their roles, audiences sharing a picnic, a performance and an evening together underneath the stars,” McKay says. “So many great memories made. I always end the season a little bruised, exhausted, and a few pounds lighter but there is a sense of great accomplishment knowing we are honoring a legacy and doing the Bard proud.”