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For Festival, All's Well That Begins Well

W&M Organizers Start Bard's Tribute With Full Coffers

(c) Daily Press

June 27, 1993

By David Nicholson

WILLIAMSBURG — Shakespeare may be long dead, but his festival is alive and well at the College of William and Mary.

From a financial standpoint, in fact, it's getting as fat as Falstaff.

Before fund raising for this 15th Virginia Shakespeare Festival began, executive director Jerry Bledsoe had $115,000 in the bank - something new for this struggling summer event. Additionally, he met this summer's $25,000 goal for donations early and is confident in funding the rest of the $90,000 budget through ticket sales.

Any extra income will be added to the $115,000. Bledsoe eventually wants to have a $150,000 cushion to keep the festival solvent and provide stipends to bring in more professional actors and technicians.

Recovering from a string of financially troubling years in the 1980s, the annual festival has been moving cautiously. In recent years, Bledsoe has cut back the lineup to two productions - "Julius Caesar" will open Friday, followed by "All's Well That Ends Well" on July 9.

"We're being sensible, not self-indulgent," said Bledsoe. "We're getting the community roots that we need before we try to soar too high."

Bledsoe's aim is to provide students with a quality program and the community with an attractive festival.

Most of the 43 actors, technicians and administrative staffers are undergraduate and graduate students from William and Mary and other colleges. Bledsoe usually brings in a professional actor to head the performing wing of the company. Steven Culp accepted the position this summer.

Culp grew up in Virginia Beach and graduated from William and Mary in 1978.

Since earning a master of fine arts degree in acting from Brandeis University, he has been working as a television and stage actor in New York and Los Angeles.

The last time he came to Virginia was in the late 1980s to appear in the television miniseries, "Gore Vidal's Lincoln."

Though Culp has concentrated on new plays in recent years, he's quick to defend the importance of Shakespeare.

"Shakespeare hits us where we live," he said.

"He gives us a sense of the world. You really get to the nature of human behavior."

This summer, he will play Brutus in "Julius Caesar" and the King of France in "All's Well That Ends Well."

While the king is a minor role, Brutus is one of the bard's great tragic heroes.

"These roles are so huge," said Culp. "You have to revel in the impossibility of the task, to fill these huge vessels with our own puny spirits."

Though the play is not named for him, "Julius Caesar" is really about Brutus, said Bledsoe, who is directing the tragedy.

"At the bottom of this is a basic politician's lust for power," added Bledsoe. "Brutus makes the big mistake that political assassination might be justifiable. The theme of the play is that it never is."

"Brutus is very much the still moral center of the play," said Culp. "It's not an easy role, not flashy. You have to dig it out."

Culp said he is grateful for the opportunity to play a role like Brutus out of the glare of the New York spotlight. In Williamsburg, "you have the luxury to really do the work," he said.

Though tall and athletic, Culp admitted that the festival schedule - teaching in the morning, rehearsals in the afternoon and evening - has him a little winded. He's been unwinding with long bike rides and has enjoyed catching up with Jim Luse, a former classmate who is directing "All's Well That Ends Well."

Luse, who currently directs the humanities program at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn., and teaches directing at New York University, graduated from William and Mary in 1976.

As a student director, Luse directed Culp in several plays. He has returned to the festival several times as an actor or director and is convinced of the festival's importance.

"I really want to see it survive," he said. "Shakespeare transforms people when it's done honestly."

"All's Well That Ends Well," which was last done at the festival in 1983, is a comedy. Its only parallel to "Julius Caesar" is that they both deal with the military.

"It's a magical play, rich and gorgeous," said Luse. "It's a satire on the military and a statement on individual faith in the face of conformity."

The heroine is Helena, an orphan who falls in love with Bertram. Though he shuns her initially, she eventually wins him over.

"There's a popular theory that Shakespeare was really a champion of democracy," said Bledsoe. "His heroine is a lower-class citizen who rises to greatness."

* The Virginia Shakespeare Festival will open with "Julius Caesar" at 8 p.m. Friday in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, William and Mary, Jamestown Road, Williamsburg. "All's Well That Ends Well," the festival's second production, will open at 8 p.m. July 9. The two productions will be performed in repertory through July 25. Tickets are $10 per play, or $18 for both. Call 221-2674 for information and reservations.

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