Oak Park Festival Theatre Managing Director Bryan Wakefield directs the virtual “The 15-minute Hamlet” on Saturday, January 30 (Provided by Oak Park Festival Theatre).

Oak Park Festival Theatre kicked off its 2021 season with an enthusiastic crowd and a humorous take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet on Saturday, Jan. 30. The nearly 150 attendees watched The 15-minute Hamlet virtually, put on by Festival’s artistic associates. The audience cheered on the six players through the chat feature, typing in “applause” and other comments. The rapid and no-frills, comedic production was followed by Artistic Director Barbara Zahora, announcing the company’s plans for the season.

Festival, which has been around for 46 years, is best known for Shakespeare (and more) in the park at Oak Park’s Austin Gardens each summer. While COVID-19 foiled those plans and others in 2020, the company is not letting the pandemic keep it from producing a full 2021 season. 

On March 27, a virtual reading of Nat Turner in Jerusalem by Nathan Alan Davis is scheduled. Zahora describes the work: “Set in 1831, the play imagines the enslaved preacher and rebellion leader, Nat Turner’s final night in a jail cell in Jerusalem, Virginia, where he is revisited by the attorney who documented both Turner’s insurrection and his prophecy of the world to come.”

A partnership with Kane Repertory Theatre, St. Charles, will result in a live May 8 reading of what Festival is calling Matthew Barbot’s Shakespearean mash-up The Venetians. The new play brings together characters from Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus and other Shakespearean works. It will be available on demand through May 15. In this play, “Barbot examines what it means to exist as the other in society,” Zahora said.

They “fervently hope” to take the stage once again in Austin Gardens this summer for an in-person production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which was the play originally scheduled for summer of 2020. According to Zahora, they are bringing back as many of the 2020 cast and crew as they can. She said a robust COVID-19 plan will be implemented to keep both artists and audiences safe. The run is July 17 through Aug. 21.

The fall production of The Madness of Edgar Allen Poe: A Love Story at Cheney Mansion is also expected to return after being shelved in 2020 due to the pandemic. This is dependent, like so many things, on being safe to do so. The original cast is slated to return, scheduled for Oct. 16 through Nov. 13.

Festival is also planning to offer a holiday production, but no details were revealed. 

During Saturday’s performance, it was clear the artistic associates are eager and filled with energy to get back to bringing theater to their audiences, even if it is from their bedrooms and other home environments for now. 

Taking part in The 15-minute Hamlet were Zarhora, Jack Hickey, Savanna Rae, Rio Ragazzone, Matty Robinson and August Forman, who played Hamlet. In an impressive virtual stunt, Robinson and Forman effortlessly and believably tossed a skull between screens. According to Festival Managing Director Bryan Wakefield, who directed the play, the group put approximately 20 hours into rehearsing the one-night show, much of it spent on cues to make the show flow seamlessly. The play was written by Tom Stoppard in 1976 and adapted to the virtual platform by Wakefield. 

At the event, Zahora also announced that Barbara Cimaglio is their new board president. Cimaglio is an Oak Parker and, according the Oak Park Festival Theatre’s website, “Her passion is strengthening community through social programs and the arts.” Anne Rooney has stepped down at the end of her term, but will continue to serve on the board, Zahora said. 

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