“I don’t know what it means and I don’t care because it’s Shakespeare and it’s like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words.”

-Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir

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In 1959 Sir Tyrone Guthrie ran a short piece in The New York Times. In it the director asked cities to express their interest in working with him to establish a new resident theater. Minneapolis was Gutherie’s first choice among all the respondents, so he perched a big box of a theater by Saint Anthony Falls.

Something similar happened in 2004. Three men who worked together at the Guthrie Theater decided to independently produce a summer Shakespeare festival, and needed a city to host it. They must have realized early on that Winona was the perfect spot. About 100 miles downriver of Minneapolis, Winona has more than ten city blocks of immaculately preserved Victorian buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. (Perhaps Elizabethan architecture would better suit a Shakespeare festival, but lotsa luck finding it here.) Better yet, Winona has always been a beacon for artists, with healthy visual arts and music communities.

The Great River Shakespeare Festival is now celebrating its 17th season in Winona with productions of two of the Bard’s plays: The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest. In line with today’s sensibilities, director Lisa Wolpe’s production of The Taming of the Shrew will invert the story’s gender dynamic to depict an eccentric woman domesticating a boorish bachelor. (“Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper” is certainly a pro-husband message, but not a modern one.) The Tempest is directed by Beth Gardner, who specializes in making old plays feel like they are new again. Now in her third season at the festival, she gives Shakespeare’s dark comedy about strange doings in the Mediterranean a truly otherworldly feel.

The Great River Shakespeare Festival doesn’t just stick to its namesake. This year it will feature Dickens’ Geat Expectations as adapted by Gale Childs Daly, where six actors share from more than one dozen parts. Cycling rapidly through the headspaces of different characters is an actor’s most impressive trick, and one that capitalizes on the stagecraft of theater. This year’s festival will also present Every Brilliant Thing, a contemporary one person play by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe. The show deals with weighty themes of mental health and worse, and its sole performer creates a stark intimacy with their audience in a little black box theater.

“Shakespeare is bigger than the theater,” said Eileen Moeller of the Great River Shakespeare Festival. “His plays are life itself condensed into a pure spirit. We still treasure him for his skill at writing all kinds of emotions. Remorse, betrayal, love — these feel the same now as they did 400 years ago, so bringing Shakespeare’s work to life is only a matter of how to dress it up.

“Our company values sharing our art with everyone. Our mission is to tell stories well, in language accessible to modern audiences of all levels of education. On Sunday mornings throughout the festival our education director leads discussions at a coffee shop downtown, where visitors can ask questions and have conversations with the plays’ actors. We also try to make the theater experience as financially accessible as possible.”

The Great River Shakespeare Festival will be held June 20th through August 2nd. You can learn more about this year’s productions at grsf.org.


By David Scheller