Summer means many things: longer days, warmer nights and the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival. Every summer for more than 20 years, the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, the professional theater company of California Lutheran University, has been bringing the works of Shakespeare to life under a canopy of stars in Kingsmen Park.
On June 29, the Kingsmen launch their 22nd festival with their first-ever production of The Two Noble Kinsmen. Widely regarded as Shakespeare’s final play, written in collaboration with his protégé John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen is “a beautiful mix of comedy, romance and tragedy,” says artistic director Michael Arndt. Inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, the work revolves around two cousins whose lifelong bond is tested beyond its limits when they fall in love with the same woman. Described by the Kingsmen as a “tragicomic story of betrayal, war, madness and all-consuming passion,” the play embodies the timeless appeal of Shakespeare’s works.
Elizabeth Swain, a distinguished actor, director, teacher and member of the Antaeus Company in Glendale, makes her Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival debut as the play’s director. She has been wanting to direct The Two Noble Kinsmen since she saw a Royal Shakespeare Company production 30 years ago. “When Michael asked me to direct it, I was thrilled,” Swain says. She likens the play to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its “push and pull of tragedy and comedy.”
Arndt says that the decision to produce the rarely performed Noblemen stems from the company’s desire to “expand the audience’s tastes as well as the types of shows we do, especially when we do a major play like Othello.” The great Shakespearean tragedy premieres July 20. “We push it every year,” Arndt adds.
Ryan Lee, who last helmed Richard III on the Kingsmen stage, directs Othello, Shakespeare’s immortal work about a general who is overcome by paranoia and jealousy and driven to murder and ruin. Nowhere else in the Shakespeare canon are the themes of racism, misogyny, jealousy and revenge stronger than they are in Othello, but Lee chose to focus on a theme that resonates just as strongly within the work. “I wanted to make it about relationships. [Othello] is a really dysfunctional love story. Everyone is in love with someone they can’t have.”
Lee says that he and the actors have been sharing their own relationship stories during rehearsals. “It’s been very cathartic,” says Lee. “[Othello] is so intimate.” He adds that he hopes audiences feel “like voyeurs looking at something very personal.”
With the myriad themes coursing through both plays, it is interesting that both Swain and Lee sum up the plays in this way: “Love is complicated.”
“It sounds trite but there are so many versions of love in The Two Noble Kinsmen,” says Swain. Forbidden, courtly, platonic, Sapphic, unrequited, doomed — Shakespeare explores the gamut of love and gives language to the inexpressible.
Angela Gulner, a festival favorite who plays Hippolyta in Kinsmen and Emilia in Othello, echoes Swain’s and Lee’s sentiments. “There are so many complicated relationships,” Gulner says. “I hope that people can feel a little bit of themselves in each person.”
Resonating throughout the entire festival will be at least one powerful and clear expression of love. The season is dedicated to John Slade, the beloved director who died suddenly last summer. Losing Slade was a terrible loss and a shock to the company. It is in his memory that the company is focused on reinvigorating itself.
“We’re looking forward to an exciting season,” says Arndt, who adds that it’s wonderful to “discover new stories.” Gulner seconds that emotion. “I’m excited for audiences to discover a new play.” It’s not often that one gets the chance to see both a rare Shakespeare play and a revered classic, performed by a world-class company of actors, in a single festival. The Kingsmen offerings remind all of us that it’s well worth venturing out of our comfort zones.
Other changes are afoot this season. In addition to producing a work that’s new to the company, the Kingsmen’s stage is being completely redesigned. “The look of the stage will be dramatically different,” says Arndt. The ticketing system has been revamped, too. For the first time, all tickets can be purchased online.
New or familiar, Lee explains that with every Shakespeare play, “No matter what, you think you know it, but every time you do it, you find something new.”
The Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival takes place June 29-Aug. 5 at Kingsmen Park, California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. For schedule, tickets and more information, visit www.kingsmenshakespeare.org.