Parting is such sweet sorrow

First Folio lifts curtain on final season, celebrates rich legacy

All the world may be a stage, but eastern DuPage County had never seen a stage like this.

It was the summer of 1997 and First Folio Shakespeare Festival had taken up residence at Mayslake in Oak Brook to perform theater in the preserve. "The Tempest" was the maiden production under the moonlight. Unfortunately, a starry night wasn't great for acoustics.

"We didn't have a sound system yet, so the audience was up close," said First Folio co-founder David Rice.

A generous benefactor quickly came to the rescue.

"An audience member said, 'You need a sound system and I'm going to donate it,' " Rice related.

It was the launch of an improbable run for the company, now called First Folio Theatre, which opens its final season Nov. 2 with "Jeeves Intervenes" in the Great Hall of the historic Peabody Mansion at Mayslake, 1717 W. 31st St.

Rice said the time to bow out had come.

"The decision was arrived at after much discussion over close to two years," he related, saying those talks began before the pandemic.

Rice's wife Alison Vesely was the creative force behind the summer Shakespeare concept.

"She came up with the idea, and then she sat down with the right people and worked out a business plan and created the non-for-profit," he said of Vesely, who passed away in 2016. "She was the guiding force."

Drawing just a few dozen per show that inaugural summer, First Folio would soon become a summer must-do event for many and pack in more than 400 a night, Rice said. First Folio had brought the Bard to the masses, sometimes changing the setting but never the celebrated poetry of his words.

"People would come up to me and say, 'I'm so glad you made the changes you made to Shakespeare's language," Rice recounted. "But we didn't change anything. That's just what happens when you have really talented actors and directors and designers who know how to do Shakespeare."

He cited the Chicago Tribune's praise for First Folio's rendering of "Much Ado About Nothing" as nice affirmation. And the theater has collected 45 Jeff Award nominations over the years (including one for original music in 2022), winning seven.

In 2004 First Folio began staging shows year-round inside the mansion, which took some adjustment, Rice admitted.

"The outdoor shows were done on a huge raised stage," he said. "When we moved inside, we were in a playing space inside the formal library. It was a postage stamp stage."

Moving into more spacious Great Hall, also called the Chapel, has worked out better, according to Michael Goldberg, director of "Jeeves Intervenes."

"It really has been a gem for them to be at the Peabody Estate, and they've used the mansion in a really unique way," said Goldberg, who added he got choked up walking through the mansion recently for the first time in several years.

Goldberg worked as a fight choreographer with First Folio two decades ago, performed as a cast member and later directed "Midsummer's Night's Dream." He said the company's longevity testifies to its quality and positive work environment.

"For an equity theater to last 26 years in Chicago is remarkable," he said. "Outdoor Shakespeare is such a special offering and that has been a gift to the Chicago area."

Although the sun has already set on that dimension of First Folio, Goldberg said people will be enamored with the distinctly British characters of "Jeeves" from the mind of author P.G. Wodehouse.

"I'm thrilled that I get to kick off the season," he said. "Jeeves is the quintessential butler and manservant. I love the show because it's fun and it's entertaining and it gives audience members a chance to enjoy theater and be taken away from daily life for a couple hours"

Goldberg said he relishes working with old friends as well as younger members of the production.

"For those of us who have worked here for years, it's a nice way to be part of the send off," he commented. "For new artists working with me and other veterans, they get to see how a good theater environment operates.

"I will dearly miss it," Goldberg added.

As if the season wasn't poignant enough, Rice and his daughter Hayley will share the stage later this season in "Neither Have I Wings to Fly,"

"That was one of my goals for the final season, to find the just the right show for us," Rice said.

Hayley will then direct First Folio's final offering, fittingly Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," in April. Looking back, Rice is thankful for the leap of faith he and Alison took a quarter-century ago.

"If we had really known what we were getting ourselves into, we never would have had the courage to do it," he said. "But we were able to compete on a even playing surface with the other major theaters in the city."

For many, the curtain's close will leave a void - so don't wait.

"People say, 'I can't imagine the western suburbs without you,' " he related. "Now is the time to come see us!"

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Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean