Festival Theatre couples Shakespeare with two contemporary works

? Marking its 30th year, Festival expands productions and ambitions to become year-round theatre.

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By JOHN YOO

The Oak Park Festival Theatre, known for its annual production of a single Shakespeare play performed in Austin Garden, will mount three plays simultaneously this summer in a bold expansion plan.

Festival Theatre will celebrate its 30 years of "Classics in the Park" with an expanded list of productions for the summer 2005. The festival will feature Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors," American playwright Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," and Megan Well's "The Gods of Love."

The performances will be staged in Austin Gardens, north of Lake Street on Forest Avenue.

"It'll be our first time running three plays," said Joyce Porter, the president of the Festival Theatre board. "We're trying to expand our offerings to the community, move forward and grow."

Porter said that the theatre is expanding its productions this summer with hopes of entertaining a more diverse audience.

"We bring a great variety to our audience. Shakespeare is very light-hearted, humorous and suitable for the entire family. 'All My Sons' is more of a contemporary play that deals with issues that resonate even today. And 'The Gods of Love' by Megan is a beautiful one-woman show that ties in Greek and Roman mythologies," she said.

Jack Hickey, artistic director of Festival Theatre, will stage "The Comedy of Errors," featuring a modern setting in a Caribbean island resort. The play tells a humorous story of twin brothers, separated at birth, who find themselves on opposite sides of a feud between warring countries.

"We picked 'The Comedy of Errors' for its delightful farce style," Hickey said. "It'll also be an interesting contrast to last year's 'Romeo and Juliet.'"

The play will have a cast of roughly 17 actors who will begin their rehearsal this Wednesday.

"What amazes us is how timeless Shakespeare's plays are," Hickey said. "He knew the essence of the human condition so well that it still relates to us today."

"The Comedy of Errors" will run Thursdays though Sundays, from June 16 to June 19 at a reduced ticket price, then from June 23 to August 21 at a regular ticket price.

Guest artist Megan Wells' one-woman show, "The Gods of Love," follows her critically acclaimed production of "Helen's Troy," a highlight of the Festival Theatre's 2004 season.

"I am a professional story teller and a performing artist," said Wells. "So I mix dance and story-telling to immerse the audience into my performance."

"It's a story that becomes a moving dream," Wells said. "And, oh, yeah, I want to assure the audience that they don't have to remember a thing from Greek mythologies to enjoy my show."

"The Gods of Love" will run for eight Wednesdays starting June 29 through Aug. 17. The show is suitable for teens and up. In the case of rain, this show will be staged indoors at the 19th Century Woman's Club, 178 Forest Ave.

Director David Minks will stage "All My Sons," the first modern classic for Festival Theatre.

The story takes place in the backyard of Joe Keller, a factory owner during World War II, who has a dark history of selling defective airplane parts to the government, ultimately causing the death of 21 American pilots. Keller dodged the responsibility by putting blame on his partner at the time but four years after the incident, his secrets are slowly revealed.

"All My Sons" is an emotional drama that deals with family relationships, personal responsibility and war profiteering in a post-World War II America.

"One of the reasons the play was chosen was because of the depth that each character portrays," said Minks. "Every character has such a deep history that unfolds naturally throughout the play."

The production will have a cast of eight actors and will run Mondays and Tuesdays starting July 11 through Aug. 16. The play is suitable for young adults.

The celebration of its 30th anniversary makes Festival Theatre one of the oldest professional theatres in Chicago.

Porter said that this anniversary marks a new beginning of ambitious plans for the theatre.

"We would like to become a year-round theatre," she said. "Right now, we are looking at various suitable locations that will allow us to perform even during the winter."

Porter said the theatre is in the process of applying to Urban Gateways, an organization that arranges shows for schools. At the moment, Festival Theatre also works with a touring company staging small plays for schools, libraries and clubs.

But above everything else, Porter said the theatre needs the support of the community to realize its plans.

"Everyone should take advantage of this beautiful backyard," she said. "They don't realize the treasure they have ? a high quality professional theatre that offers absolutely amazing performances."

Ticket-buyers are invited to bring chairs or rent a chair at the park for $2. Mancini's Pizza Pasta Café (708-524-2050) picnic dinners can be ordered through the theatre on the day of show, or with two days advance ordering. Complete picnic baskets will also be available for purchase at Whole Foods (708-366-1045).

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