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Great River Shakespeare Festival: a great way to spend a day

It’s no secret that Minnesotans like to escape in the summer — especially those in the Twin Cities. While this usually takes them to parts north, folks who like a bit of the arts with their beauty may want to journey south to Winona, where the Great River Shakespeare Festival has just started its sixth season.

For the rest of July, the festival presents a pair of Shakespeare works — “The Tempest” and “Love’s Labours Lost” — in the Performing Arts Center at Winona State University. The event also hosts prelude concerts on the green outside the center on the weekends, along with various talkback sessions and outreach events. An intern company will rehearse and present “Hamlet” during the last week of the festival as well.

The outreach seems to have reached the Mississippi Valley community. Not only is downtown festooned with festival banners, but a local volunteer group, The Friends of Will, is several hundred members strong.

Co-founder and producing director Paul Barnes says that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was a model. In both cases, picturesque cities were chosen to host. (It will take Great River some time to match the hundreds of thousands of visitors Oregon gets each year, but that festival does have a 70-year head start.)

Accessibility of the material, especially for those who don’t like (or think they don’t like) the bard is a key part of the mission. The festival has hosted “Skeptic” performances, where discounted tickets, discussions and food have been offered to get new folks into the seats.

“The Tempest” showcases this desire for accessibility. The action is clear and the dialogue is easy to follow. This clarity comes at a price here, however, as the production is lacking in subtlety. Some of Prospero’s more complex emotions get flattened, until he seems to go from angry old man to forgiving without a pause in between.

Still, the cast does a fine job throughout, especially Christopher Gerson as Caliban, who creates the show’s monster almost entirely through his speech and posture. The production also brings out the magic of the island through simple effects, mainly lighting and music. Overall, “The Tempest” moves quickly (it’s over in a little more than two hours) and does a fine job of bringing the audience inside Shakespeare’s world — and showing everyone that it’s not too scary in there.

And it’s not just the Shakespeare that makes the trip worthwhile. The drive — a bit more than two hours from Minneapolis — is gorgeous, as the highway cuts through the Mississippi River valley throughout. The city offers plenty of other attractions, including museums, shops and restaurants. It’s a pretty drive, and a great place to go for a day of theater.

The Great River Shakespeare Festival runs through July 26. Tickets are $15 to $30. For information and tickets, call (507) 474-7900 x110 or visit online. For information on visiting Winona, go here.

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