By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Jul 15, 2014 at 9:16 AM

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival could well have a subtitle saying "Also Starring Milwaukee."

A theater crowd from Milwaukee plays a major role in the festival, which opened over the weekend at the gorgeous theater on the grounds of the Ewing Cultural Center at Illinois State University in Bloomington. The theater, which seats 430, is one of the most glorious outdoor facilities I have ever seen.

Jonathan West directed "Much Ado About Nothing," while Paula Suozzi directed "Elizabeth Rex." Some of Milwaukee’s finest actors are in the company that’s performing three plays – "Antony and Cleopatra" is the third – in repertory during the summer run. They include Matt Daniels, Todd Denning, Norman Moses and Deborah Staples.

In addition, the formidable Kevin Rich, very familiar to Milwaukee audiences as an actor, is the artistic director at Illinois Shakes and directs the third play this season.

Bloomington is only a shade over three hours from Milwaukee, but the trip is surely worth it for Milwaukee Shakespeare fans. There were even a smattering of familiar faces in the opening night audience.

One of the most interesting things about this series is that all three plays are tied together.

"Much Ado" led the weekend with all its comedy, and tragedy followed with "Elizabeth" which was written by Timothy Findley and first performed in 2000. The story is of Queen Elizabeth, who has just requested a performance of "Much Ado" as a distraction from the impending execution of her former lover. As the performance closes, we find Shakespeare himself engrossed in the writing of "Antony." Thus, the common thread for these plays.

"Much Ado About Nothing"

This was the second version of "Much Ado" I’ve seen this summer, the first at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, a world class production by a world class company – directed by David Frank, the longtime head of APT and a man revered as a builder of what is one of the very best summer theater programs in the country.

The version unveiled by Illinois Shakes, however, doesn’t come close to having to take a backseat to the spectacular APT version.

This rendition, under West’s distinctive hand, is an all-male version, just what it was like when Shakespeare wrote the play 415 years ago. It would be over 60 years before women actually took the stage to play the part of women.

I knew this was going to be an unusual production when I entered the theater and saw the cast in various stages of activity before the play even started. Daniels, who played Benedick, prowled the stage, half-costumed and practicing his warm-up exercises. Colin Lawrence, who would play Hero, sat on a chair while a makeup artist made sure his lipstick looked perfect and adjusted his flowing wig of golden hair.

Phillip Ray Guevara, who played Don John, walked up the aisles of the theater thanking patrons for coming and asking if they were comfortable. Moses, who played the ridiculously funny Dogberry, stretched. Several actors led the still-settling audience in the wave – probably not part of audience interaction four centuries ago but helpful in creating the atmosphere of the day.

The immediate perception was that this was going to be a special and interesting evening, an example of what is called "original practice" Shakespeare. Companies throughout the world are experimenting with "original practice," meaning all male casts along with the kind of raucous and Rabelaisian humor common with the performances at the old Globe Theatre. Those exercises were followed by an explanation of the play by several actors.

Once the business was out of the way, the (imagined) curtain rose, and it was only moments before a song and dance number by the entire cast broke out. It either was or wasn’t "original practice," but it certainly set the tone that we in the audience were about to see something unique.

"Much Ado" is the tale of two love stories: between Claudio and Hero, and between Beatrice and Benedick. The Claudio/Hero love is interrupted by manufactured rumors of her pre-wedding infidelities but ends up with all hands on deck and a wedding happily prepared.

The Beatrice/Benedick relationship is one of smart and witty barbs thrown at each other followed by eavesdropping on fanciful conversations designed to convince them of deep love, followed by a happy kiss and the promise of lifelong devotion.

The two men who played Beatrice and Hero were a wonderful demonstration of how great acting removes any gender stereotype from Shakespeare. Lawrence was especially dazzling, both in performance and in his appearance, the spitting image of Olympic gold medalist and "Dancing With the Stars" winner Meryl Davis. His every movement and expression gave us a woman eager for and capable of great love.

In contrast, Christopher Prentice’s Beatrice was unmoved by any thoughts of love or marriage. She was obviously determined to remain a grumpy by choice spinster, until the first murmurs of a lover filled both her ears and her heart.

Both Daniels as Benedick and Moses as a side-splitting Dogberry got as many laughs as I’ve ever heard in this play. Moses is an absolute master at the kind of character building that can give you both gales of laughter and moments of sympathy.

The first act of the play is the one filled with humor while pathos rears its head in the second half, broken only by Dogberry. But eventually the lies are proven as such, and false accusations are dispensed with as everything ends in joy and forgiveness.

I loved this play, but it served to remind me how much West is missed in the Milwaukee theater landscape. After running the respected Bialystock & Bloom for a decade, he signed on with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. He occasionally dips his foot back into work on the stage, but his presence as both an actor and a director are deeply missed. I know people have to do what they have to do, but West’s gifts would create a welcome return to our stages.

"Elizabeth Rex"

The issues of gender identity and sexuality are preeminent in the stunning production of "Elizabeth Rex" on the second night of the repertory opening at Illinois Shakespeare.

It features a hide-bound Queen Elizabeth sparring, helping and getting help from an equally hide-bound Ned Lowenscroft, an actor who specializes in playing women in the plays of William Shakespeare and is a member of his troupe, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. In addition, Ned suffers from the pox, probably syphilis.

On the eve of her ordered execution of the Earl of Essex, the Queen has watched a performance of "Much Ado About Nothing" (which opened the repertory Friday night) to distract herself from the fact that the man she has ordered executed is her former lover. She has stamped him a traitor for arranging a truce instead of bringing home victory in a war with Ireland.

The actors are confined to a barn following the performance and are surprised when the Queen visits. She is drawn to Lowenscroft and the dance of the gender and sexual uncertainty begins in earnest.

For the queen, it’s an issue of ruling a kingdom, or in this case, a queendom. Surrounded by men, she was determined to "outman" them at every turn.

"I killed the woman in my heart so that England might survive," she admits with sorrow as he faces Lowenscroft. "I shall die of regret for never having been myself."

For Lowenscroft, the crisis is his constant onstage role of a woman and the memory of a passionate and fulfilling sexual liaison with an Irish soldier, played with expected depth and joy by Milwaukee’s Matt Daniels. In his heart, he knows he is a man but is unsure how to act and feel like one.

The issue thus becomes clear, and it is left to the queen to put it into words as she comes face to face with Lowenscroft.

"If you will teach me how to be a woman, I will teach you how to be a man," she promises.

The two actors who play the queen and Lowenscraft, Milwaukee’s Deborah Staples and Christopher Prentice, who made his professional debut in 1998 at Illinois Shakes, create characters who are both memorable and enticing.

Prentice dives deeply into the internal conflict of Lowenscraft, giving all of us a clear understanding of the war he is fighting with himself. His passionate recounting of his affair with Jack, the Irish soldier, makes you grit your teeth at the explicit and dirty yet beautiful description of the brief fling. He is an actor of immense versatility and presence.

Meanwhile, Staples plays Elizabeth as if this role were created just for her. She is imperious and confident. She is humane and filled with doubt. She wants to love and be loved. She is witty and glum. She is everything a deeply scarred queen should be.

It’s hard to describe the depth and scope of Staples’ performance, but there are several moments that may capture her magnificence.

At one point, Lowenscraft has invited the queen to sit before him in a chair and before she does, he says "I smell mischief." She is wary, noting that "mischief is as mischief does."

Rather than regally plopping into the chair, Staples turns her eyes on Prentice and hesitantly lowers herself into the seat. It is such a slow and dramatic movement that you wonder whether her bottom shall ever come to land.

That moment shows the queen as a wit and a player. But there is another that shows her fierce determination to be both a queen and a power. In the scene, she has just received yet another request to spare Essex from the beheading.

"Damn you," she snaps. "Damn all of men. Every one of you."

"I will not spare him." she adds. "Nothing will shake me in this. Nothing!"

I caught my breath at the anger and force that ripped through the marvelous space at the Ewing Cultural Center like a crack of lightning followed by a howling wind. It was like watching an explosion that threatened every bystander.

Staples is an absolute beast on stage, and the ride on her shoulders helps to raise the entire company to unexpected and reverential height.

The production is directed by Milwaukee’s Paula Suozzi, who ran Milwaukee Shakespeare until its untimely disbanding. Following that, she created a personal training company that met with significant success. But she missed the world of greasepaint and recently left the training of runners to return full time to the training and steering of actors and plays.

She is an opera director of a measure of fame, and you can see her operatic training in this production. In a stage packed with people, she has a clear and precise understanding of the moments of drama and the power of words. Many of the speeches carry the air of an aria being sung by a tenor or soprano. Suozzi has the ability to make this Shakespeare sing.

The character of Shakespeare, played by Thomas Anthony Quinn with startling realism, is a constant presence in this work, written by Timothy Findley and commissioned by the famed Stratford Festival. Will is engaged in writing his next work, "Antony and Cleopatra," and is using much of the dialogue from Elizabeth to create Cleopatra.

The promise of the new play piques the interest of all the actors, who know it will fall to them to make the words come alive.

"Elizabeth" is the second installment of the repertory of Illinois Shakespeare and continues the enveloping aura of "original practice," however without the all-male cast. It’s a fortunate thing, too, because having Staples on the stage is a trip into the rarefied air of the truly skilled.

"Antony and Cleopatra"

You can take your Jezebel, Delilah, Mrs. Robinson and Glenn Close in the movie "Fatal Attraction," put them into a burlap bag and set them aside. There has never been a femme fatale like the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Nobody even comes close. The sultry queen is on full display in the third play of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s  summer repertory, "Antony and Cleopatra."

Milwaukee actors Todd Denning and Deborah Staples play Mark Antony and Cleopatra, respectively, and it would be difficult to find a more odd couple. Antony is all bluster and a preening masculine warrior, unafraid of battle, eager and confident of victory. Cleopatra is all diabolical sensuousness, a regal lady who understands the power that lays behind her kisses and the flutter of her lips.

"Antony" is a difficult play to stage. It spans ten years and features a number of battles in a number of different lands. The play is truly a story of war, but more than that, it is a story of love: the good, the bad and the ugly.

The married Antony is fully enraptured with Cleopatra in an affair that singes the senses with its passions. His wife dies, and the queen thinks he will now be her own. But events conspire to force his marriage to the sister of one of his closest friends, Octavius Caesar. Needless to say, this sets Cleopatra’s teeth on edge, and she does not suffer betrayal gladly.

She schemes and plots, and throughout a series of murders, suicides and betrayals, she finds that her long awaited joining with Antony is about to consummate, but yet again, the twists and turns fail the union, ending in pretend death followed by real death.

Denning dazzled last summer as Touchstone the court Jester in "As You Like It" at Optimist Theatre. This summer, he proves that his Shakespeare chops are not limited to comedy. There is an incredible gravitas to his Antony and yet Denning finds some of the uncertainties that lurk beneath the surface of his warrior persona. He is torn between the siren song of Cleopatra and other duties that await his role as a soldier and statesman.

Staples, who just one night earlier had delivered a riveting Elizabeth in "Elizabeth Rex," climbed to new and spectacular heights as the queen.

She is, simply put, stunning, both in appearance and in action. She has the wit, brains and obvious dedication to herself, mixed with a haughty yet earthy sexuality she uses to manipulate. From her every word and her every action and her sexy appearance, it’s easy to understand why a man, any man, would commit any act for a moment of her attention.

I am reminded of an interview I heard with Richard Burton when he was marrying Elizabeth Taylor again. Someone asked him what he found most desirable about her.

"Have you seen her shoulders," he replied. "Her shoulders are the sexiest part of her body."

Take a glimpse of Staples in her bare shoulder golden gown, and you’ll know what Burton meant.

Kudos must go to Kevin Rich, the artistic director and spirit behind this interesting repertory season. He directed this play and took such a lengthy historical period and gave it the kind of pace that kept the audience moving with the production.

Illinois Shakespeare is intimately affiliated with Illinois State University, which is both a strength and a potential hazard to creating a world class company.

Actors need to go someplace to learn their craft, and there are eight MFA candidates in Illinois State, all of whom appear onstage during this run. The only time I noticed a difference between experienced actors and students was during "Antony and Cleopatra." There were occasional slips and difficulties with text that can only be learned after years of study. That gap, however, was the only blemish on this production.

In Wisconsin, we have the world class American Players Theatre, called by many the best in the country. Illinois Shakes is moving in that direction, and with a gorgeous space on gorgeous grounds, an easy three-hour drive for Milwaukee Shakespeare fans would be a worthy summer trip.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.