'Midsummer' in Winona: Great River Shakespeare Festival is worth the road trip

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

You won’t find an ad for Welsh castle tours in the typical Minnesota theater program—but the Great River Shakespeare Festival doesn’t attract a typical audience.

In addition to people from Winona and the Driftless Area, explains artistic director Doug Scholz-Carlson, the festival attracts Twin Cities audiences and Shakespeare superfans: “People who go to the festival in Stratford, or who go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and then they’ll come see us as well.”

They have good reason to make Minnesota’s festival a regular destination. In addition to Shakespeare, the festival stages complementary plays like this year’s Venus in Fur, a sensual psychological drama that has Anna Sundberg reprising the role she played at the Jungle Theater in 2013.

Sundberg is making the most of her return to the festival, where she apprenticed 11 years ago. In addition to Venus in Fur, she’s perfectly cast as the Bard’s romantic interest in Shakespeare in Love.

Christopher Peltier stars opposite Sundberg in that charming production, which marks the first time the festival has ever staged a play about Shakespeare. A good-humored cast and scenic designer R. Eric Stone’s spinning stage-within-a-stage keep things clipping merrily along in Lee Hall’s 2014 adaptation of the Oscar-winning movie.

Friday night’s Shakespeare in Love premiere was part of a weekend in which all four plays in the 15th annual festival opened. ( A Midsummer Night’s Dream and All’s Well That Ends Well are the Shakespeare shows this year.) Before the play, audiences relaxed on a leafy quad outside for a pre-show talk.

The six-week festival also includes concerts, film screenings, panel discussions, a sonnet contest, and even tree tours. Education is a major component: There are workshops, an intern/apprentice production, and a show by high schoolers. Plays are chosen to talk to each other.

“We got talking about this moment in time that we’re in right now, about gender dynamics,” he explains. “All of our plays relate to that.” All’s Well That Ends Well is about problematic extremes in romantic pursuit, while Midsummer sends its characters into a forest where they do some regrettable things and subsequently need to find a way to move forward together.

After warmly applauding Shakespeare in Love, Friday night’s audience spilled out onto the lawn for a spread of snacks and a performance by the Big Dixie Swingers. There was an air of familial conviviality, which fits Scholz-Carlson’s description of a festival that’s well worth the short road trip for Twin Cities theater fans.

“You step out of your everyday life for a day or two,” he says. “You immerse yourself in some great works of art, and you have some conversations that can really help you discover yourself as a human being.”

Great River Shakespeare Festival
Winona State University
Through August 5