MARQUETTE – Award-winning playwright and Northern Michigan University Professor Shelley Russell’s latest work, Pendragon: The Legend of King Arthur, premieres April 19-22 at Forest Roberts Theatre. Arthurian myths have captivated generations and spawned numerous literary and dramatic interpretations. Despite their medieval context, Russell says it is the central themes of unification, human responsibility, progressive thought, and maintaining a connection to Mother Earth that continue to resonate with audiences.
Her new dramatic fantasy – like her previous plays – blends Russell’s love of research and social history with her desire to explore the human experience.
“My creative writing tends to be a composite of what I read, hear, and talk about with my friends and family,” she said. “Over the last few years, it has focused on society and the legacy we’re leaving our children. I can’t help but feel we’re in need of a King Arthur right now. Americans live in a troubled time with the country at war and dishonored internationally. Children see divisiveness and hate; they’re raised in an atmosphere of competition and distrust.
“There was a fiery, almost desperate urge to write this play. My hope is that young people believe they can and must take hold of their future and change the direction it’s heading. Merlin challenges Arthur, and us, to do that. I’m a completely irrational optimist. To me, Pendragon symbolizes a hope of something magnificent arriving and changing the world for the better when humanity needs it most.”
The play opens with a contemporary twist leading up to Arthur’s first appearance at the age of 15, drawing the sword – Excalibur – from the stone. It continues through the resulting battles of good versus evil, the unification, and finally the destruction brought about by a vengeful character. While Guinevere is featured prominently and the Round Table mentioned, Russell chose not to delve into the “love triangle” with Lancelot that appeared in later literary incarnations. Her research focused on earlier accounts of the Arthurian legend.Russell, who also directs, said the most daunting challenge was trimming the play to a running time of one hour and 45 minutes. She describes it as a “light” retelling, with glimmers of humor and irony interjected throughout the script.
“It moves fast with highly energized scene work and stage combat. At one point, up to 18 people are involved in a battle back and forth across the stage. Like my favorite stories, it is a significant historical idea and much-loved myth wrapped up in an entertaining, staged environment.”
Russell credits her theater colleagues for supporting her desire to stage the play and enhancing its production value.
“The technical aspects will blow people away,” she said. “Vic Holliday designed a set that reflects a beautiful, natural Celtic environment. Kimberly Hegmegee was excited about the project and wanted to do the lighting just right, so every lighting instrument we own is in the air. They also worked hard to create period weaponry, and we purchased a new special effects system that we will be using for the show.”
The theater program is reaching out to area students from the elementary grades through high school. It held matinee showings for the 2004 production of Beauty and the Beast, and will give about 2,000 students an opportunity to see Pendragon this week.
Russell’s previous writing credits include the Upper Peninsula-themed musicals Haywire and Beacon on the Rock; a drama inspired by the Edmund Fitzgerald’s final voyage titled Holdin’ Our Own; and Links, an exploration of women’s golf.