Hawaii Shakespeare Festival adds Chekhov to its lineup
Tony Pisculli, R. Kevin Doyle and Harry Wong III founded the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival in 2002 with a single goal: They were going to present every play in the canon.
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Tony Pisculli, R. Kevin Doyle and Harry Wong III founded the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival in 2002 with a single goal: They were going to present every play in the canon — not just the popular and well-known plays like “Othello” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet,” but every one, including the obscure and “not-so-good” works. This they proceeded to do at the rate of three shows each summer. They finished up in 2013, albeit by condensing three of the “history plays” into a single action-packed production.
Since 2013 the scope has widened to include plays that Shakespeare might have written and plays written by some of his near contemporaries. This year Pisculli is adding Anton Chekhov to the schedule, presenting a minifestival dedicated to the 19th-century playwright with “The Seagull” and two Chekhov shorts.
“Our mission was to complete the canon, and we did that. Once we got past that point, we didn’t want to just keep cycling through, so we dedicated at least one slot each summer to either being ‘not Shakespeare’ or something experimental,” Pisculli said.
As for Chekhov, Pisculli confessed that he’d thought of the Russian as “very dour and unfun” until he sat in on a Chekhov workshop at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Pisculli enjoyed it so much that he proceeded to reread all of Chekhov’s plays.
“I thought ‘The Seagull’ was amazing. It had such incredible characters. It’s very meta-theatrical — a play within a play — and being about theater and the artistic life, and so we’re bringing it to the festival.
“I don’t remember the last time someone did Chekhov in Hawaii,” he said.
Pisculli is expanding the Chekhov experience by presenting free pre-show performances of “Bear,” a Chekhov short play, and an original adaptation of a Chekhov short story titled “Avenger.”
“When we go outside Shakespeare we’re looking for stuff that other theaters aren’t doing, like ‘The Witch of Edmonton,’ which dates from around Shakespeare’s time, and it’s either classical in nature — and I think Chekhov qualifies, it’s relatively new compared to Shakespeare but not still contemporary by any stretch — or stuff that’s Shakespeare-related in some way.”
Pisculli, Doyle and Wong made the festival a midsummer program in 2002 because they wanted to give everyone — especially high school and college students — the opportunity to do Shakespeare. At that time, existent theater groups went dormant during the summer, so the timing helped with soliciting experienced actors. The Honolulu theater season is now year-round, but the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival has continued to thrive.
The Hawaii Shakespeare Festival presented “The Merry Wives of Windsor” with an all-male cast as it would have been done in Shakespeare’s time, and Pisculli has directed a series of all-female productions. There have also been Shakespeare done with “gender neutral” casting, Shakespeare performed in two “invented” languages and an impressive “Lear-Shrew-Much Ado” repertory production performed with minimal rehearsals and no blocking as an experiment in original staging practices.
The Hawaii Shakespeare Festival has been an incubator of talent, too; a notable example is Eleanor Svaton, who did her first play ever in the Hawaii festival’s “Henry V” in 2008 and steadily rose through the ranks, directing “A Winter’s Tale” in 2015.
Talents to watch this year include teenage actors Ari Dalbert and Alisa Boland in the title roles of director Rob Duval’s “age appropriate” production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and UH-Manoa alumna Shirley Kagen, who is returning to local theater after more than 20 years to direct “Comedy of Errors.”
“We’ve cast teenagers before, but not as leads,” Pisculli said. “(Age) was important to Rob on this production going in. He teaches high school, and he works with a lot of talented young actors all year around at ‘Iolani, and he just really wanted to put young people in those roles. The two that we got are phenomenally talented.”