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Monday, 23 September 2013 14:59

‘Old Hearts Fresh’ shakes up the streets of the Grove

Written by Tina Farmer
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The idea of bringing Shakespeare to the streets and directly involving the community in the production is more than admirable; it is necessary to keeping the arts alive and to inspiring generation after generation to keep moving art forward. Shakespeare Festival St. Louis once again takes theater to the people with "Old Hearts Fresh" a modern tail of love and hope inspired by Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale."

This lively, joyful performance was produced in the Grove, and featured "locally sourced" talent in key roles as well as the ensemble. The neighborhood is not short on talent, or support. A large, vocal audience gathered for the performance I attended and Mother Nature herself cooperated in this production, with clear skies and pleasant early fall temperatures.

A section of Manchester was blocked off for the performances, as the main stage area was just off the road, with a long runway and action that at times extended across the street. The audience filled in from the sidewalk and opposite side of the street, with surrounding restaurant sounds and traffic providing a constant "soundtrack" underneath the show. Suffice to say, the area had the feel of a street carnival or festival, which complemented the tone of the evening and the play.

The script "Old Hearts Fresh," is artfully crafted by Nancy Bell, updating Shakespeare's story of loss, atonement and redemption and setting it in the Grove. Bell seamlessly weaves the new story, interspersing lines from Shakespeare with the language and realities of a contemporary city neighborhood. She even manages to sneak in some of the history of the Grove, connecting the theme of a community transformed with this tale of individual transformation.

In the Grove, Leontes is no longer a king, but he's an important community leader with a loving pregnant wife and young son. In a fit of jealous rage he accuses his childhood friend, Polixenes, of not only having an affair with his wife, but of fathering the unborn child. A DNA test proves Leontes is the father, but his jealous rage has consumed him, and when his wife and young son run away from his wrath they are struck by a vehicle.

Driven by rage, and now grief, Leontes abandons his baby daughter in the middle of Manchester road and sinks into despair. A passerby, an older, hard-working man with a son to support, rescues the baby, takes her home and raises her as if she were his own.

Time, in all her radiant glory, intervenes and the story moves 16 years into the future. Perdita, Leontes' daughter, is now a happy, healthy artist in the making, and she's working on a mural to be revealed during a charity event in the neighborhood. At the event, Paulina, an old family friend, introduces Leontes and Perdita, his wife and son magically reappear, the old man who has raised Perdita is warmly embraced - and a sense of hope is restored.

The magic elements in the story elevate the theatrical, but it's the charm of the characters and the warmth of community spirit that help this show succeed. Bell has done an expert job of reimagining Shakespeare's tale and director Alec Wild kept the showed a nice touch with the pacing and the cast. The characters felt genuine and all handled the dialogue, both contemporary and Shakespearean, quite well. A few lines got lost here and there, but the overall quality, from a technical and performance standpoint, was high.

The character Time, played with the perfect amount of smirk and sequins by Michael Shreves as Michelle McCausland, served as narrator and guide through the show. She kept the audience involved in the story with frequent humor, sarcastic asides and the occasional lip-synced song. Drew Battles and Marty Casey, members of Actors' Equity Association, provided strong anchors for the cast as Leontes and Paulina. Battles ability to draw audience sympathy was evident and Casey's wise, down to earth Paulina was a calming, reassuring influence.

Wendy Greenwood, Antonio Rodriguez, Don McClendon, Jacqueline Thompson, Kevin Williams and Nathan Bush were strong in the major supporting roles. Each had at least one moment when they commanded the audience's attention and each handled his or her moment well. The rest of the ensemble also performed well, and the energy and sense of fun in the closing party spilled into a celebration in the streets as the performers took their curtain call.

The script was filled with contemporary references and humor, but the soul of Shakespeare was present throughout. Turns on philosophy, romance and even self-worth were all given appropriate weight, but never treated with a heavy hand.

"Old Hearts Fresh" marks the second Shakespeare in the Streets performance, and solidifies the festival's grass roots efforts. With its support of local, on-the-street performances, the young actors troupe and the annual festival performance in Forest Park, the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis demonstrates a genuine commitment to keeping art alive and authentic in St. Louis.

For more information on the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis visit www.sfstl.com.

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