There is something magical about experiencing a sunset without realizing it. To be so focused on what you’re watching — be it a sporting event, a musical act, or a fishing line — that the world moves on around you and you find yourself suddenly transported from day to night. Like I said: magic. And the magic quotient goes up by a magnitude of seven or eight (minimum) when the sun is setting during a fine production of Shakespeare.

Prior to this past Sunday, I had never attended a play at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. I had also never seen a production of Antony and Cleopatra. And now that I have done both, I can say that I am the better for it. Both were and are impressive, thoroughly enjoyable, and put together with a minimum of fuss.

First there is the drive over, which will take Champaign-Urbanites around an hour. But it’s only an hour, after all, and it doesn’t have to be time ill spent. You can play a spot-the-license-plate game, or listen to a Ryan Adams album, or have a delightful conversation. I went with the latter, but you can choose your own adventure. Then, from the moment you arrive and are greeted by a crossing guard in approximately Elizabethan costume, you belong to the Festival.

Through the stone entryway of Ewing Manor you pass into a rugged and lovely stone courtyard. Tables and chairs are arranged facing a simple wooden stage, whereon members of the ISF company put on the pre-performance “Green Show,” a casual but effective warm-up for the audience. And, since the audience begins arriving a couple of hours prior to curtain, they need something to fill the time besides ogling the aesthetic beauty of Ewing Manor itself. The Green Show is a rotating menu of reduced Shakespeare and audience participation which, when I showed up on Sunday (around 6:15 for a 7:30 p.m. show) had a fight choreography lesson titled “They Fight!” in full (telegraphed) swing.

Once you’ve enjoyed the swordplay, picked up your tickets at the box office, perused the two or three different T-shirts for sale, and possibly purchased a beer or some ice cream, you might step into a little art gallery to one side of the courtyard. Inside, hanging alongside some period plumbing, you’ll find a display of sketches and photographs celebrating the work of scenic designer Karl Eigsti. A scene designer from Central Illinois, Eigsti’s fifty-year career included work on Broadway shows (including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Monty Python Live), Off-Broadway shows (like John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves), and regional productions for the likes of Arena Stage in Washington D.C., The Guthrie in Minneapolis, and the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. In addition to the lure of the little air conditioners in the gallery space, the gorgeous set renderings are worth the fifteen minutes it will take you to have a close look.

So now you’ve seen the artwork in the gallery? You have your “Shake Shake Shake Your Shakespeare” T-shirt? You’ve greeted your fellow attendees like old friends? This is a thing that seemed to happen left and right on the day I attended, by the way. People of all ages, races, and social strata — seriously, seersucker and bowties right next to New Balance sneakers right next to sundresses — raising a glass and talking about the shows they’ve seen so far. One of these attendees, a fellow named Rolly Turner, is well-known to the theatre communities of Champaign-Urbana, Springfield, Bloomington, and beyond. If you’ve been in the audience of a Krannert Center, Station Theatre, or Parkland show in the last few years, you’ve likely seen him — bearded, dressed in show swag, nodding happily along with the actors. I took Turner’s presence at this performance of Antony and Cleopatra as a good omen, and I couldn’t help but smile as I eavesdropped on his conversation with a nearby group of mature ladies. At one point, after naming the frankly staggering number of shows he sees per year, he said, “It’s the reason I get out of bed each day.” 

OK, you’ve seen all this so far? Good, because there’s still more to see. The play doesn’t start for at least another 30 minutes.

Leaving the courtyard behind, it’s now time to step through an archway onto the Manor’s glorious back lawn. If you’ve never personally walked out of the black-and-white farmhouse into the full-color Land of Oz, I don’t have much to compare this to. This gorgeous expanse of grassy green, lined with tiny floral bombardments, is a destination in and of itself. Friends, couples, families, and every combination thereof congregate there in picnic groups of all sizes. Lawn chairs, blankets, and packed wicker hampers abound. Take note: if you fail to bring a picnic basket, you’ll feel somewhat out of place and envious of those who did. (And, for the record, you can call 48 hours in advance and order a box lunch from a local caterer. I didn’t, and they looked pretty good.)

Finally, the crowd makes its way into the theater proper — a deceptively simple open-air structure with stadium seating — and the anticipation truly builds. The seats fill quickly, and the performance begins in broad daylight. This lack of dramatic fanfare might give the impression that what you’re about to see is some sort of local Parks Department summer program. Don’t let it. This is serious theatre work, all the more real and impressive for its lack of special effects.

I won’t spend that much time on the story of Antony and Cleopatra, since you’ve probably seen a movie or a tenth-grade World History textbook. Suffice it to say that Marc Antony and Cleopatra (played by Todd Denning and Deborah Staples, respectively) are extraordinarily hot for each other, but war, loyalty, compromise, betrayal, and more war get in the way, leading to their deaths. As these tragic lovers, the leads in this production are an electrical storm. Denning brings the swagger in the form of the thundering Antony, a man whose non-stop bark is almost as bad as his bite. As his paramour, the legendary Cleopatra, Staples is alluring in two essential ways; in addition to being sexy, she’s also incredibly funny (but then I repeat myself). Staples, who does double duty as the titular Queen in the rep company’s production of Elizabeth Rex, is a physical and vocal marvel, countering the bulk and power of Denning’s Antony with her own slink and sly wit.

The play, which moves at a fever pitch through its scenes, surrounds its leads with an able crew, some of whom hail from the C-U area. Cast members Timuchin Aker (Agrippa) and Wigasi Brant (Scarus) and musician Michelle Plunkett join the Festival fresh from shows at the University of Illinois’ Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Aker and Brant are dynamic in their roles, to be sure, but it must be said that the majority of the actors in this show turn in knockout work. Chief among them is Matt Daniels, whose Enobarbus (the right hand of Antony) is definitely a crowd favorite. Daniels’ wry, contemporary delivery (a little anachronistic-sounding compared to the mostly classical-sounding enunciation) makes him the Ron Perlman of the show, and I mean that very much as a compliment.

Speaking of the delivery of the dialogue... I mentioned earlier that I had never seen a production of Antony and Cleopatra prior to last Sunday. In point of fact, this was the first time I had ever attended a production of a Shakespeare play without having first read the text. In spite of my background with the Bard and my love of the language, I had some trepidation about how long it would take for me to stop hearing the writing and start hearing the story. (You know that moment in The Hunt for Red October when Sean Connery is speaking subtitled Russian as the camera closes in on a glass of water then, as the camera pulls back, everyone is speaking English? It’s kind of like that, only totally different.) As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried, for the intelligence and facility of the Festival’s actors made every utterance both lofty and easily understood.

Director Kevin Rich, with whom I spoke for the Smile Politely preview of this year's Illinois Shakespeare Festival, has staged a lyrical and action-packed interpretation of this classic tale, complete with clever scene changes and genuinely exciting stage combat. And that transition from early evening to dusk to night? Unbelievable. The use of limited but effective lighting elements in the second half of the show only enhances the fact that, much like Antony and his army, we have to take a look around at the darkness and wonder how the hell we arrived there.

Since I saw fit to frame this review as a bit of a travelogue, let me close with your last moments at the Festival. Once the cast has left the stage to rapturous applause (led by a standing Rolly Turner), the lights come up and the audience files out to their cars. On the way, near that stone entrance I mentioned earlier, you may well see Kevin Rich (who is also the Festival’s Artistic Director) and Managing Director Dick Folse wishing their patrons well. I didn’t expect to see them, that night, but there they were, and I thought it was a classy touch to complete the experience. These fellows — and everyone else at the Festival, from the people selling ice cream to the players in the Green Show to the Equity members in the cast — take immense pride in what they do, and it shows.

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival, which continues in repertory through August 9th, has so much to offer its audiences. In addition to the beauty of its location and the quality of its actors, it will give you one more essential theatre element: plenty to talk about on the drive home.

Photos (with the exception of the Festival publicity photo of Staples and Denning) by Mathew Green.