Vacationing in Winona, Minnesota, may not sound ideal.
Yet it is. This beautiful college town, located on the Mississippi River, has scenic bluffs, twin lakes, wide bicycle lanes, a riverfront park, a historic downtown, the Blue Heron coffeehouse (which serves local, organically grown food), and even two bookstores.
But we really come for The Great River Shakespeare Festival (June 24-Aug. 2). Great acting, great directing–and the plays are indoors, in a lovely auditorium on the Winona State University campus. There are free concerts on the Green afterwards (with food trucks)
This year we saw Much Ado About Nothing. I expected little–a light comedy.
Yet Much Ado is not so light: it is both hilarious and chilling; witty and suspenseful. We laughed at the banter between Benedick (Christopher Gerson) and Beatrice (Tarah Flanagan), the brittle couple who cannot quite fall in love because of their sharp tongues.
From Act 1, Scene 1:
118 What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet
120 Is it possible disdain should die while she hath
121 such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?
122 Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you
123 come in her presence.
And so the flippant, harsh teasing goes on.
And yet they come together, by the comical plotting of Don Pedro (Andrew Carlson), who manages to tie up their love up neatly with a bow. With the help of the much nicer, duller romantic couple, Hero and Claudio, the men and the women separately talk loudly about Benedick and Beatrice’s love so Beatrice and Benedick can overhear.
But that is not all. There is a gruesome turn to the plot , when the prince’s evil brother, Don John (Robert Ramirez), breaks up Hero and Claudio, by persuading the men that Hero is a wanton.
Claudio devastatingly confronts Hero at their wedding and says she is a slut he will not marry. All the women know Hero is innocent.
Naturally, it all works out. We knew it would. But there is the serious trope of Hero’s feigned death. (Love and death!) The Friar, who believes Hero’s insistence that she knows no man but Claudio, decides the men should be told that she died because of their accusations. (She is, of course, alive.) This trope also occurs, only tragically, in Romeo and Juliet, which you can also see at GRSF this summer.
One thing we like about The Great River Shakespeare Festival is that, though there has been some turnover, many of the actors are here every year and are now coming into the starring roles–and doing beautifully.
In 2009, we saw a production of The Tempest with Tarah Flanagan as Ariel, Christopher Gerson as Caliban, and Michael Fitzpatrick (the witty, sophisticated Leonato in Much Ado) as Stephano. We have seen them grow as actors. They are all superb.
If you stay in Winona for a few days, you must also check out the Root River Trail (east of Winona). If you start in Lanesboro, a historic town on the bluffs with antique shops and restaurants, you can have dessert in Whalan at World’s Famous Pies.
A lovely place for a short vacation!