Viola and Patsy and Papa Shakespeare and Me


If you’re looking for a grand adventure near a beautiful river and more construction than you’d think possible in such a small town, do I have the vacation for you.

On July 1st, 2022, the proverbial curtains opened on the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF)’s 21st season in the quaint riverside town of Winona, Minnesota.  A weekend of three Shakespeare productions, capped off by delicious local food and a walk down by the mighty Mississippi?  Count me in.

A few days after I confirmed this assignment with the GRSF team, I received a press release from them noting that their production of The Taming of the Shrew (TOS) had been canceled.  I was incredibly disappointed; not because I like TOS, but because the “gender-swapped and multi-racial adaptation,” adapted and directed by a woman, sounded like a fascinating take on the original play.  The reason for the cancelation, the press release stated, was it was too difficult to do justice to the material in so short a time – “However, the pressures of time, as well as the charged nature of the play’s content, contributed to an atmosphere in the rehearsal room that was difficult, even impossible, given our desire to enable deep listening on a very tight schedule.”  Read the full press release on GRSF’s website.  I was at least pleased to know that the actors in the company were cast in multiple shows, so no performers lost their jobs due to the show’s cancelation.  I was less pleased to learn a week later that TOS was being replaced with the little-known Shakespeare classic, Always…Patsy Cline.

Then, the day after I planned to book my travel (but put it off because I am the Queen of Procrastination), I received an email from the GRSF noting that their opening weekend had been postponed due to COVID cases within the company.  Luckily, I was able to rework my plans so I could make it to the openings of Twelfth Night and The African Company Presents Richard III (by Twin Cities playwright Carlyle Brown), but other patrons weren’t so fortunate.  A friend I ran into after one of the productions mentioned the abrupt change in schedule meant she and her traveling companions were stranded in Winona for three days, while only getting to see one production.

I certainly can’t blame GRSF for COVID cancelations; I rather admire it.  As an audience member, I would much prefer a show being canceled than having COVID-positive actors spit Shakespeare at me.  GRSF clearly and actively communicated with their ticketholders at every point in the process, and while I was disappointed to miss 33% of the shows, the general feeling I had was these cancelations were a severe outlier in the way GRSF generally operates.  Curious and excited to see what else might happen, I hopped in my car and headed down to Winona.

Winona is more or less what one might expect from a small Minnesota college town – blocks of ancient, dilapidated brick buildings that once held printing presses but now hold State Farm agents; a collection of hipster dinner places and funky coffee shops with offerings like lavender lattes and pina colada frapps that pipe easy listening alternative music through hidden speakers; a smattering of dive bars that are the only buildings in town open past 8pm; and, probably most astonishing to me, free parking absolutely everywhere.  As someone who grew up in a smallish city with only two blocks of parking meters in the entire area (and didn’t have to parallel park as part of her driving exam) I dearly miss free parking.

The town itself is fairly easy to navigate.  The river’s on one side, the town is on the other side, and if your GPS gets confused (as mine did several times, thanks to the construction), you can turn down nearly any street and get to your destination without much additional fuss.  After I checked into my hotel, I headed downtown toward one of the hipster dinner places that had been recommended to me – Nosh Scratch Kitchen.  Had I not been preparing to see nearly three hours of Shakespeare, I would have stayed there after finishing my pork belly tacos and had three more of their evening’s specialty drink, the Jamaican rum-forward “Mr. Crabs.”

After dinner, I headed to the beautiful campus of Winona State University, to Shakespeare Shorts on the green.  Shakespeare Shorts is a brief offering presented by students from the GRSF Professional Training Program.  According to the show program, these students – either late high school or early college, I would guess – “study classical theatre techniques with [the GRSF] professional company and put those skills to work over the course of the festival.”  I settled into a plastic chair and immediately flashed back to my own first experience with The Bard.  My first Shakespeare audition (out of three total) was dreadful.  I was a sophomore in college, and Bethel was putting up Romeo and Juliet.  I auditioned for the Nurse, I think, with exactly zero understanding of how to interpret Shakespeare, how to scan a line, or that Shakey wasn’t actually played in a fake British accent.  And no, dear reader, I was not cast.

These students were certainly better than that, though as they chose short scenes from three lesser-performed works (Love’s Labor’s Lost, As You Like It, and The Tempest) AND chose to swap all the character genders, I found myself getting a bit lost.  I’ll chalk this one up to them and to myself – I would have loved a grounding description of each scene, or even what play it was from, but someone with a more advanced knowledge of the lesser-performed canon likely would have gotten on just fine.  The kids did seem to be enjoying themselves, and I certainly support any program that allows young students to learn or practice their craft alongside professionals.

After the students performed their Shorts, they launched into a quick summary of Twelfth Night.  We also received a cute little paper primer with dramaturgical questions like “Consider: Is Orsino really in love with Olivia?  Or is he just in love with the idea of being in love?”  I opened the primer to reveal a “Who’s Who” mind map showing each actor, the character they play, and their relationship to the other characters in the play.  I was overjoyed to see that Feste the fool would be played by Brittany Proia, a female-identifying actor.

My second Shakespeare audition was my senior year of college, after I had taken a Shakespeare class and realized that punctuation was important.  The final production of the year was none other than Twelfth Night, set in the 1960s and directed by one of my favorite people.  I auditioned for and was cast as Feste the fool (or Feste the Jestress, as we labeled her), adorned in loud harlequin pants, ostrich feathers, and Tammy Faye makeup.  Instead of singing Shakespeare’s songs, I sang “Crazy,” to Malvolio in his prison cell, and “Someone to Watch Over Me” to the lovelorn Orsino.  I’ve always been a fan of gender-modifying Shakespeare when it makes sense, and I see no reason why Feste shouldn’t be a woman.  As I finished flipping through the program and settled into my seat, I noticed one other gender-modified character on the list – Malvolio was now “Malvolia.”  I was intrigued.  And as I looked around the theatre, I was also disappointed – in the number of folks in the audience not wearing masks.  GRSF’s COVID policies require neither masks nor vaccines, but I had hoped more folks would don a mask for the nearly three-hour show runtime.

After a short delay, Twelfth Night began, and the audience was gently ushered into rainy Illyria.  Feste wandered onstage, plucking her mandolin and singing “The Rain It Raineth Every Day” in her folksy, Lorde-like voice as various characters did their best to escape the (invisible) downpour.  Far upstage, nearly concealed by the giant set, Viola (Alex Campbell) was swept away by the waves, saved from her watery grave at the last moment by the Captain (Jonathan Contreras).  I hoped the rest of the production would continue in this abstract manner, but the “rain” went away pretty quickly and sadly never returned.

The production as a whole was…fine?  Nowadays when I venture off to see Shakespeare, I expect the production to say something.  Maybe it’s set in a fun era that also comments on the events of the play, or perhaps the text is interpreted in a new way, like the aforementioned TOS production.  This was not that.  It pains me a bit to say, but there wasn’t anything terribly special about it.  It was a bunch of very good actors on a very nice stage doing a perfectly fine production of Twelfth Night.  Hooray?

The mild saving grace of this production is the acting.  Nearly all the actors embraced the heightened language as if it were their own, leaning into the multiple humorous moments so hard that the entire audience would rumble from laughter.   The pairing of Sir Toby Belch (Lloyd Mulvey) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mark Mazzarella), who both mark their debut with GRSF, was easily the audience favorite.  Mulvey found stunning moments both in the humor and despair of his constantly drunk character, while Mazzarella capitalized on Aguecheek’s dimness to earn the audience pity he so rightly deserved.

My other standout was Leah Gabriel as Malvolia, a role I was uncertain would work as a woman in this particular context (my very chatty seat neighbors muttered “wait, is she a lesbian?” in an unenthused tone).  It is unbearably hard to play the serious role when everyone around you is pulling laughs and having the time of their lives, but Gabriel sunk into Malvolia and managed to give her both a severe, Reich-ish tone and a heartbroken tumble from grace that pulls at the heartstrings.  Who among us hasn’t suffered unrequited love in some capacity?  Making Malvolia a woman allowed me to connect with her more; it took her character from “here’s this creepy dude who wants to get with Olivia so he can have power” to “here’s this strong woman who wants to be loved but also have power,” which in my view is much better.  As she read “Olivia’s” letter aloud, and Sir Toby and his crew hid behind mobile topiaries upstage, I truly did believe Malvolia loved Olivia, which made it all the more devastating when we saw her in the madhouse.  I found myself identifying and sympathizing with her; though I truly hope that is a result of Gabriel’s performance and not some unresolved personal issues.  Malvolia is the only Twelfth Night character without a happy ending, which is unsurprising; Shakespeare wasn’t a big fan of the Puritans of the day, as they generally disapproved of the “heathen” theatre and persecuted the Catholics who largely made up Shakespeare’s audience (and his family).  The Puritans finally succeeded in their quest to close the theatres nearly 50 years after Twelfth Night was published, making Malvolia’s final line “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” ring quite true.

The production design was less successful than the acting, unfortunately.  Costume Designer Rebecca Bernstein’s looks were brilliant – if taken individually.  I am not a costume or era expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I must acknowledge my confusion (and assume that if I was confused, other theatregoers were too).  When captured as a whole, Antonio’s Jack Sparrow pirate getup clashed horridly with Sir Toby Belch’s purple jacquard poly silk suit, which clashed with Feste’s modern boho chic fringe vest and cloth hat.  With the possible exception of Fabia (Olivia’s gardener, who also was inexplicably dressed like a pirate) and the aforementioned Antonio, each character looked like they were from their own play, without even an era in common to unite them.  This is not to say that the costumes weren’t appropriate for each character – I especially liked Malvolia’s severe olive green skirtsuit with buttons that split open to reveal her cross-gartered legs – simply that they didn’t work together to tell any kind of cohesive story.

The unit set (by Rodrigo Escalante) was unremarkable; for my final project in my college Design for the Stage class, I crafted a set very similar to this one for a production of Much Ado About Nothing.  While the actors spent a curious amount of time bringing on furniture and sometimes unnecessary gates to establish locations, I would have loved to see the unit set used more instead of functioning only to provide levels and stairs.  The set was two-story on both sides; at one point, Sir Toby galumphed up a long flight of stairs, and the entire stage left side of the set pulsed and swayed in time to his galumphing.  While I trust that GRSF can afford to hire excellent scenic craftspeople, the give made me quite nervous, and I found my eyes drifting back to that side now and again through the long Act II.

Perhaps it’s my decaying ability to focus for long periods of time (thanks TikTok), but two hours and 45 minutes is too damn long for any piece of theatre, much less a play.  There is fluff in every Shakespeare script, and I wish they had cut something, anything.  The company hosted an ice cream social afterward on the outside green, but the temperature had dropped so severely (and the clock had just ticked past ten) that all I wanted to do was return to my warm hotel room.

I woke to a cloudy, rainy day two.  I spent the day discovering more local treasures – donuts at Bloedow Bakery, coffee at Blooming Grounds Coffee House, lunch to-go at Heirloom Seasonal Bistro, an afternoon beer at Island City Brewing Company – and ended my afternoon sitting on a bench at Levee Park, watching the boats cruise by on the Mississippi River and listening to the strains of a bluegrass band playing to the growing crowd at Island City.

“This is a beautiful place,” I thought.

I returned to Winona State in time to catch the second rendition of Shakespeare Shorts; a different group of students and scenes than I’d witnessed the previous day.  I wouldn’t say this collection of four students was more talented than the first bunch; merely that their presentational style was more successful.  Group 2 stopped between each scene and introduced the next while remaining in character, gently ferrying the audience through some challenging text like Measure for Measure and King John.  Afterward, they explained the plot and some historical context for The African Company Presents Richard III using laminated notecards.  Group 1 had also used laminated notecards to explain Twelfth Night, leading me to assume that Group 1 and Group 2 (and possibly a Group 3) rotate among the various mainstage productions.

At ten minutes ‘til, I stepped into the theatre and immediately went, “OH.”  The stage was completely transformed from the previous evening – the bright colors and facing were gone, replaced by stark scaffolding and a muted patchwork backdrop.  I recognized one of the stair units from Twelfth Night, and realized that scenic designer Rodrigo Escalante must have somehow designed one set that could be reused in multiple ways for multiple productions.  That probably is connected to the wobbly tower galumphed on by Sir Toby; while the set itself appeared perfectly sound, the set facing warped with his stomps, causing the unstable appearance.  Kudos to the GRSF team for switching everything out for each performance; that must be a great deal of work, but the result is very effective.

The African Company Presents Richard III tells the true tale (or at least true-inspired tale) of American’s first Black-operated theatre – The African Theatre, founded by William Brown (Raffeal Sears) in 1821 in New York City.  Helmed by star actor James Hewlett (Adeyinka Adebola), the company puts up Richard III against white theatre owner Stephen Price’s (Doug Scholz-Carlson) Richard III a few blocks away.  Price is horrified that white theatregoers to The African Theatre’s production are placed in the back, behind a partition, and demands the play be shut down.  By force, if necessary.

Carlyle Brown’s script premiered at Penumbra in 1988, which was astonishing to me.  Even though the show is set in the 1800s, the text rings just as true and feels just as modern today as it might have 34 years ago.  It is more of a “telling” play than a “showing” play – especially in the first half – the show begins with a startlingly powerful image, then tumbles into actors talking for a number of minutes about offstage events.  This isn’t to say that the talking isn’t interesting, or the actors don’t talk well, simply that the play itself earns much of its power in Act II, when the showing becomes more prevalent.

The acting overall was much more consistent in The African Company than in Twelfth Night; the cast worked together as a unit, and there wasn’t a weak link among them.  The clear standout was William Sturdivant as Papa Shakespeare, an older man who grew up in the Caribbean experiencing homelessness in New York City.  He wanders the stage with his long grey dreads and giant ashiko-like drum and warmly welcomes the audience into his orbit.  Sturdivant is magnetic; it’s rare I wish a character had more monologues in a play (in fact, it’s never), but I wish Papa Shakespeare did because I enjoyed the experience so much.  It felt like being invited into the cozy office of an aging professor, inviting you to sit in his well-loved red leather chair as he stokes the fire and offers you a whiskey.  We the audience felt taken care of by him.  He navigated the humor and drama in his monologues with a deftness that I envy, and hope someday to master.  It also made it all the worse when everything went horribly wrong.

[The following paragraph contains mild spoilers for The African Company Presents Richard III; they may be disturbing for some readers]

Toward the end of the play, The African Company begins their presentation of Richard III in their rented hotel ballroom.  As Adebola spoke his soliloquy, I couldn’t shake the quiet disruptive sounds that rang in my left ear.  “You’re unwrapping your hard candies NOW?!” I thought.  But it wasn’t long before the shuffling became coughing, then louder coughing…then monkey sounds.  Adebola stared straight ahead and increased his volume ever so slightly as the monkey sounds increased in volume.  By the time I turned and noticed it was the character of the Constable (Benjamin Boucvalt, who the night before had played the lovable Orsino in Twelfth Night), I was halfway to my handbag to find something to throw at him.  Even as the Constable sauntered from the audience up to the stage, shouting obscenities, my fingers itched.  I wanted so badly to throw my water bottle at him, to make him shut up, to make him stop, make him stop, make him stop.

As I tumbled into my car a few minutes later and began the 2-hour trek home through pitch black winding roads and patches of ghostly fog, I couldn’t turn my brain off.  “I don’t think I could do that,” I kept saying out loud to the night.  “I don’t think I could do that.”

Obviously “white actors question if they could play a barbaric, racist white character who shouts derogatory terms and sounds at Black characters and also does violent things to them” is not the point of this play.  But I can’t not think about it.  I am a white actor.  These roles do exist.  And some point between the third impenetrable pocket of fog and the world’s slowest car in front of me on a two-lane road, I determined it was okay to dwell on it for a little while.  As an actor, I need to think carefully about the types of roles I accept – not just which types of characters I want to portray, but to ensure I take care of my own mental health.  I also need to make good choices about where I take these more challenging roles.  GRSF lists both an Intimacy Director (Tonia Sina) and a Text Coach/Dramaturg (Andrew Carlson) amongst the production team for this show, and that coupled with the extensive dramaturgical resources made available to the audience, is encouraging.  The choice of play also matters a great deal; obviously a white playwright telling this story and a Black playwright telling this story are two very different things.  And in this particular case, the two white characters were true to the era, and served their purpose effectively.  I am supposed to want to throw my water bottle at them, I think.  They needed to be part of the play.  Regardless, I’m grateful that this show underlined the importance of knowing the play and the space you as the actor are walking into when you audition, who is there is the space with you, and how to protect your own mental health.

There will always be room for frivolity in the theatre.  There will always be space for the Sir Tobys and Sir Andrews and Feste the Jestresses to sing and dance and encourage the audience to laugh along at pranks gone wrong.  But I hope we can continue to make space for the Papa Shakespeares – for the characters who possess both comedy and tragedy, who lovingly shepherd us through hard times and into harder questions we wrestle with even days later.  As we emerge from this pandemic into the next whatever-this-is-now, we need comedy more than ever.  Even in the dark times, the scary times, the what-the-hell-could-come-next times, we need to find the joy and laughter when we can.  In theatre, it’s having experienced the hilarity that makes the dramatic moments hit so much harder.  In life, it’s having experienced joy that lets us know we can find it again.

Let’s all get out there and find it again.

IF YOU GO: Check out for a full calendar of events; productions run in repertory through July 31st, 2022 at the DuFresne Performing Arts Center on the Winona State University campus.  Tickets range $10-49.



Headshot of Kayla Hambek
Kayla Hambek

Kayla Hambek (she/her) is a playwright, actor, and director whose work has been seen onstage across the United States.  Kayla has an MFA in Playwriting from Augsburg University, and is a proud member of the Minneapolis Playwright Cabal.