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Wild Oats -07/12/1999

By John O'Keeffe. Adapted by Jeremy Sams. By arrangement with Nick Hern Books. Cast includes: Michael McAlister, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Frank Nall, Rebecca MacLean, Jay Whittaker, Philip Earl Johnson, Stephen Rose, John Fischer, Carrie Lee Patterson, Jo

Illinois Shakespeare Festival

In repertory through July 30. Ewing Manor, Bloomington, and Westhoff Theater, Normal. Box office: 309-438-2535.


Although the Illinois Shakespeare Festival obviously specializes in works by Shakespeare, this summer's "Wild Oats" continues the tradition of adding a non-Shakespeare piece to the repertoire every now and again.

Last year it was Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," which riffs on minor characters from "Hamlet."

This year's entry, an 18th century comedy of manners (and manors) by Irish playwright John O'Keeffe, features a roving player named (not surprisingly) Rover, who takes his cues from Shakespeare's speeches and characters even when he is off-stage.

As the play progresses, Rover spouts bits of "Richard III" (one of this season's repertory partners), "Twelfth Night," "Hamlet," "MacBeth," and "King Lear," requiring the actor who plays Rover to hop in and out of those parts as well, at least for a line or two.

Rover's ability to assume different roles propels him into a mistaken identity plot, a love affair with a beautiful heiress, and even a reunion with his long-lost relatives.

It's a romantic comedy lark, full of rogues and ruffians, lovers and lunatics, impostors and hypocrites, mischances and misapprehensions. Less lusty than "Tom Jones," less clever than "The Rivals," "Wild Oats" is still reminiscent of its fictional and dramatic counterparts from the Georgian era.
Director Calvin MacLean, who is also the Artistic Director of the Festival, makes as much of "Wild Oats" as seems possible, offering a few bits of sparkling stage business and infusing somewhat slight, talky material with excellent production values.

Still, the play is slight, and it is talky, especially in the early going. Even MacLean's sure hand and a talented cast can't get "Wild Oats" through its construction problems, when overlong expository passages bog it down in the early going, and a critical character who languishes off-stage until much too late gives the end a contrived feel.

Nonetheless, the play has a strong production platform based on Dan Wilhelm's impressive costume design and Ron Keller's efficient, charmingly rustic scenic design.

The cast is also excellent, especially Philip Earl Johnson, who makes Rover a bit of a rascal but mostly a hero; Rebecca MacLean, very pretty as sweet Lady Amaranth; Thomas Anthony Quinn, given the unenviable task of creating comedy while attached to a peg leg; Stephen Rose, perfectly blustery as a "substantial" farmer; and John Fischer and Carrie Lee Patterson as the farmer's bubbly but obedient children.

If you're looking for something a little different than the usual Shakespeare-in-the-park, "Wild Oats" will probably fit the bill. And if it's not up to the comic standards of "The Merry Wives of Windsor” or other Shakespearean classics, well, what is?

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