With their classic language and myriad of characters, Shakespearean plays can seem intimidating. However, Kentucky Shakespeare is opening its 56th season this week — with all productions free to the public — so there’s no reason not to give the Bard’s work a try.
To help you enjoy Kentucky Shakespeare with no fear, here’s a quick guide to this season’s three main productions:
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”
Preview: June 1; Opening: June 2
Run: June 3-5, June 7-12, July 13, 16, 20, 23
Type of Play: Comedy
Summary: When the play opens, best friends Proteus and Valentine — the two titular ‘gentlemen’ — are saying goodbye to each other. Valentine is off to Milan while Proteus stays in Verona, pledged to his beloved Julia. While he is away, Valentine finds love with Sylvia, the daughter of the Duke. Things are looking pretty good for the budding couple — that is until Proteus shows up in Milan. As soon as he meets Sylvia, it’s Disney-style love at first sight for Proteus. He completely forgets about Julia and vows to win Sylvia by any means necessary, including betraying his best friend.
Talk about an awkward love triangle — which only becomes more complicated when Julia arrives in Milan (dressed as a young man) to check up on her boyfriend.
For the rest of the play, we watch the four characters attempt to sort themselves back into order. It’s a process best described in Act I by Julia: “Fie, fie, how wayward is this foolish love.”
“The Winter’s Tale”
Preview: June 16; Opening: June 17
Run: June 18-19, June 21-26, July 14, 17, 19, 22, 23
Type of Play: Scholars classify this as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because of its intense shift in tone partway through the production. “The Winter’s Tale” is part psychological drama, part traditional comedy. Spoiler alert: It does have a happy ending.
Summary: Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, have been friends since childhood. When the play opens, Polixenes has been visiting Leontes for nearly nine months and while he has enjoyed catching up, he misses his own kingdom and family. Leontes begs him to stay a little longer, but when Polixenes demurs, Leontes asks his pregnant wife, Hermione, to attempt to persuade him. She does so easily.
Initially, this pleases Leontes — however his pleasure soon turns to irrational jealousy. He is convinced that the two must be having an affair and that the child she is bearing is not his. Eventually, Leontes’ behavior escalates, resulting in the death of his wife and the loss of his newborn daughter named Perdita, who has been abandoned off the coast of Bohemia. I know — this isn’t sounding like there’s much room for comedy in this production, but this is a turning point in the play.
Shortly after, the oracle of Delphi sends a message to the king that declares that Hermione, Polixenes, and the baby are all innocent. It further states that Leontes is “a jealous tyrant” and asserts that “the King shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.” Leontes vows to spend the rest of his days atoning for his misdeeds, though he isn’t sure how.
However, unbeknownst to him, Perdita managed to survive thanks to the care of a kind shepherd — which sets the stage for a fateful reunion 16 years later.
“Romeo and Juliet”
Preview: June 30; Opening: July 1
Run: July 2-3, 5-10, 12, 15, 20, 23, 24
Type of play: Tragedy
Even if you have never seen ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ you are probably familiar with this tale of a ‘pair of star-cross’d lovers,’ or have seen a modern variation like “West Side Story.” This play follows the story of Romeo and Juliet, two young lovers whose courtship is forbidden because their respective families, the Montagues and Capulets, have a longstanding feud. The first half of the play follows the romance of their secret meetings and plans to marry. However, the second half of “Romeo and Juliet” takes a darker turn.
In order to escape a marriage arranged by her parents, Juliet takes a potion that makes her appear dead for 48 hours. Romeo finds her seemingly lifeless body in the Capulet family tomb, and takes his own life only for Juliet to wake up and find him dead. She then stabs herself with his dagger. The death of the couple inspires the families to end their feud (and leaves the audience wishing they had remembered to pack tissues).
More information about the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival 2016 season can be found here.