Local school teacher stars in classic Shakespeare play

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CHRISTOPHER W. JONES (Petruchio) and Sierra Schnack (Kate) enjoy a cocktail during a scene from Shrew’d! Jones is a Rogers Park resident who enjoys acting as much as he enjoys being a Chicago Public Schools substitute teacher. (Photos by Tom McGrath)

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader

Chicago’s premier outdoor professional theatre, First Folio Theatre (Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st St. & Rt. 83), presents the world premiere of “Shrew’d!,” a new musical based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” adapted by Executive Director David Rice and Lydia Hiller, with music by Christopher Kriz and lyrics by Lydia Hiller and David Rice. Directed by Johanna McKenzie Miller, “Shrew’d!” runs through August 19, 2018.

Set in a 1930s Chicago jazz club, “Shrew’d!” follows the lives of two sisters – the tempestuous songwriter, Kate, who simply doesn’t have time for a man, and her sister, Bianca, an up-and-coming dance sensation. While trying to make their mark in their father’s nightclub, the sisters meet Petruchio and Lucentio, two mugs who fall for them like the proverbial ton of bricks. A blend of Shakespeare’s dialogue and original music and lyrics with a Chicago twist provides an unparalleled fusion of the original story and modern adaptation to set this story in the 21st century.

The lead cast of “Shrew’d!” includes Christopher W. Jones as Petruchio, among others. Jones is a Rogers Park resident, Theatre School of Depaul University graduate and substitute Chicago Public Schools teacher. He shared some insights into his acting career with the Crusader.

Jones first talked about when he became interested in acting. “I was bitten by the acting bug when I was 8 years old. My elementary school dismissed early on Wednesday afternoons, and my mother, a Baltimore City Schools administrator, couldn’t pick me up in the middle of her own school day,” Jones said. “There were two extracurricular options: Music Club and Drama Club. Drama Club was longer, so Drama Club it was. I was a particularly shy only-child, and theatre allowed me to express, with others like me, all of the creativity and imagination I found in times by myself. I haven’t stopped since. I’ve been very fortunate to choose this career.”

STEPHEN STRAFFORD (Hortensio) & Karmann Bajuyo (Gremio) are two unlucky suitors in “Shrew’d!.”

This production is a take on an ageless play, and Jones explained why it is still important today. “As one of my cast mates put it, this is a 400-year-old play being set in the 1930s with modern sensibilities. It just goes to show that even as perspectives and attitudes change, our core humanity does not.” Jones hinted a bit at the political climate today, including aspects of the #MeToo movement, while being encouraged that things will eventually smooth over. “People have always related to each other in beautiful, strange, and ugly ways, but hopefully, over time, we will continue to learn to love one another with more compassion, empathy, and respect. Our jazzy re-imagining of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” is a chance to offer audiences the right to see strong women operating at the height of their intelligence and savvy and the challenge for men to learn, ask for consent, and catch up.”

Of course, a multi-cultural cast is a welcome change, according to Jones. “All casts should be multi-cultural and inclusive, because human experience is varied and diverse. It’s important to reflect our world accurately on stage, because one of art’s most important jobs is to tell the truth,” he said. “When we exclude or suppress people’s stories and experiences, we simply aren’t telling the truth. We must learn from each other’s perspectives.”

He added that traditionally productions excluded people of color in casting. “Shakespeare and other classical texts are, and always have been, for everyone. So, the storytelling must include everyone.”

Jones admires many actors, including those who are chameleons or the ones who disappear into their roles, and have the ability to play a wide variety of characters. Some of his favorites include Viola Davis, Sterling K. Brown, Cate Blanchett, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, and Sarah Paulson. “But my biggest inspirations have been my peers. Being a part of such a strong performance community continues to inspire and push me to be better.”

Jones offered advice for young actors. “Dive in passionately with an open mind and open heart. Theatre will change your life in the best of ways. It’s not a selfish life. It’s a life lived to understand and benefit humanity. It has grown nearly every aspect of my life. It has strengthened my relationships, improved my communication skills, helped me engage with my community, and increased my global awareness.” He added that actors make up a varied group: “Theatre is political. Theatre is for activists. Theatre is for the misunderstood and ignored. Theatre is for those who have something to say about their experience of the world. Speak up and speak out without apology. Challenge ‘traditions.’ Your stories and voices have so much value and power. The world needs them.”

And finally Jones reflected on his teaching career. He has been teaching professionally for two years and works primarily as a substitute teacher in elementary and middle schools, in addition to improv coaching.

“I love passing on knowledge, and in turn, learning from my students about their experiences. I grew up in a family of teachers and educators, so it’s in my blood. Education is important to me, and I challenge myself to always keep learning about as many things as possible.”

Other actors involved in “Shrew’d!” include Sierra Schnack as Kate, Emma Rosenthal as Bianca and Tony Carter as Lucentio, among other supporting cast members.

All performances of “Shrew’d!” will take place under-the-stars on the grounds of the Mayslake Peabody Estate, located at 1717 31st St., off Route 83, in Oak Brook. Free parking is available on the grounds. Regular priced tickets are $34 Wednesdays and Thursdays (seniors and students are $29) and $44 on Fridays through Sundays (seniors and students are $39). Special $10 tickets are available for children 14 and under. Season subscriptions and individual tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 630.986.8067 or online at www.firstfolio.org.

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