Social upheaval abounds in The Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s 22nd season, which shifts from Jackson Potter Center to Canton’s Village Theatre on Friday for a three-week run. As is the fest’s tradition, two of the Bard’s best works share the stage with a famous non-Shakespeare play. This year’s offerings are the pastoral comedy “As You Like It,” the historical tragedy “Richard II,” and Karen Tarjan’s “The Killer Angels,” based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Civil War novel by Michael Shaara.
Producing artistic director Janice Blixt says the common thread among this year’s plays wasn’t intentional from the outset.
“We’re referring to this as our ‘Season of Rebellion,’ ” Blixt says. “In ‘As You Like It,’ the drama actually starts with the Duke being usurped by his brother. And then in our second show you have the nobles rebelling against King Richard II. And then our third show is ‘The Killer Angels,’ which is about Gettysburg, which is all about rebellion.”
Artistic associate Robert Kauzlaric, who directs “As You Like It” and stars as Richard II, says the festival’s 2016 program proves how timeless Shakespeare’s work remains.
“ ‘Richard II’ is the story of a country essentially deciding which of two incredibly powerful, egotistical rulers they’re going to choose between. Boy, that couldn’t be more timely!” he laughs. “The questions raised by ‘The Killer Angels’ are questions this country has always wrestled with, in terms of what sort of rights do the states have, what sort of rights do we have as human beings, what sort of allegiance do we owe to each other, to nation, to state.”
“As You Like It,” he adds, explores how women can express themselves and take control over their lives in a patriarchal society.
The festival expanded to Canton’s Village Theatre in 2015 and saw a 12 percent overall attendance bump as a result. Festival general manager Nona Bennett says her aim was to make it more accessible to residents in Wayne, Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw counties.
“One of the things we’ve learned from our audience surveys of the years is we have a lot of people who would come out to Jackson to see one of our three shows, but they didn’t come to see all three because they felt the drive was so intense,” she says. “When we were out in Canton, one of the things we saw was that a lot of people came to see all three of our shows.”
The festival’s organizers aim to make the material equally approachable.
“There’s a reason these plays have been around for 400 years,” Bennett says. “You don’t have to know the history of the time. You can walk in and not know a thing about what was going on in that time period, but when Richard says goodbye to his wife there’s not a dry eye in the place. It’s not about the political stuff right then. It’s about the humanity and the relationship, and it’s so powerful.”
Blixt says the festival offers something for diehard Shakespeare fans as well as newcomers. She and her team condense works (like last year’s “Henry IV,” which combined both parts into a three-hour production) engage with the audience, and provide educational outreach in the off-season to keep Shakespeare’s work alive and current.
“If you feel like you need a degree to see a Shakespeare play, then we didn’t do it right,” she says.
Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
July 29-Aug. 14
50400 Cherry Hill, Canton