Of all playwrights, Shakespeare is the one most associated with outdoor stages, and, perhaps, this has aided his survival for four hundred years. American playwrights don’t typically think to commune outside like him, on pitch-black nights—they’re working too hard to get in theatres. Central Park, Riverside Park, Inwood Hill Park, Brooklyn's Carroll Park, Battery Park, Carl Schurz Park, and Brooklyn Bridge Park–and others inside and outside of the city–offer performance space, often overlooked to show work, Elizabethan or otherwise; yet, there can be magic in using these settings.
In late July, on a day when thunderstorms are forecast, a young man and his wife were eating off the kiosk on a bench in Central Park, and the weather had become cool. “Shakespeare in the Park doesn’t get any better than this," the husband said, diving into his pasta—and he was right; the rain never appeared. For anyone still dreaming of that perfect night with the Bard, there are still chances to see his work this summer, before his, and most theatre, returns to its hothouses and boilercookers of intensity and compression. One festive example, set in New Orleans, during the jazz age, is the Drilling Company’s free production of Measure for Measure, which continues to play at Bryant Park through September 17.
You’ll hear a banjo and brass giving renditions of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Poor Butterfly” (when is the last time you’ve heard that one?), and you’ll see the endeavor as an ornament to the night, like the lights on Christmas trees in winter. The story follows a young novice, Isabella, who must decide whether to trade her chastity to save her brother’s life—but retelling more than that is inessential. Street theatre and Shakespeare in the Park can often be like picking up parts of conversations, like overhearing the guy on the park bench. Plot only has to make sense in the moment—much of the story and dialogue is allowed to get by you, because the evening’s randomness is filling in the rest.
This theatre is broad and the characters immediately recognizable—sheriffs and hookers and old-fashioned ladies, who have just had their hair done. They can be played by either sex—and they can make you laugh. Whether we are watching circus or a form of commedia dell’arte really doesn’t matter because the art is in letting us have it all: a cacophony of sounds–southern dialects, Jamaican accents, German pronunciations, sirens, and radio signals. Hamilton Clancy’s direction embraces the lights coming on, behind the bare-bones set, at the New York Public Library, and he sees this problem play as essentially comic. The unpremeditated night may require that because, unlike many outside theatres, there is no bandstand or shell to work with—the company, who include Emmanuel Elpenord, Eric Paterniani, Lukas Raphael, and Ivory Aquino, are especially exposed. For a staging more consistent in tone, Desmond Davis’s production, starring Kate Nelligan, might be considered. But how would that play under the stars?
Outdoor theatre has to make trade-offs. Is the vision of the director strong enough to overtake the evening’s unpredictability or can it live side by side with it, without petering out or becoming too fragmentary? One of the best examples of taking over the darkness, piercing it, is Daniel Sullivan’s now-departed Troilus and Cressida, which played at the Delacorte in Central Park from July 19 to August 24. A point of embarrassment in our theatrical period is the way American theatre-makers have looked the other way regarding U.S. involvement in its Mid-East wars, whether because of lack of knowledge or interest. Whatever the cause, if we choose to really believe that the stage can have an impact on society, then the American conversation on Iraq and Afghanistan has been let down through its theatre (this reviewer knows the issue firsthand, having co-edited a volume of antiwar plays that has garnered little interest and performed negligibly). That is why Shakespeare’s dark contemporariness concerning battling Greeks and Trojans in Troilus and Cressida has been so needed and why this unabashed production is so noteworthy. Sullivan, additionally, very plainly goes after and realizes the gay themes in the work. His Achilles can be muscled, and into leather, and mean and rough voiced—and for a military man, his bisexuality is unapologetic. Themes of war and sexuality, so disgracefully marginalized elsewhere, have been brought to light. Yes, out of the darkness.
Troilus and Cressida’s cast includes: Zach Appelman, Tala Ashe, Connor Bond, Alex Breaux, Andrew Burnap, Louis Cancelmi, Max Casella, Andrew Chaffee, Michael Bradley Cohen, Sanjit De Silva, Paul Deo Jr., John Glover, Jin Ha, Bill Heck, Hunter Hoffman, Nicholas Hoge, Edward James Hyland, Keilyn Durrel Jones, Maurice Jones, Forrest Malloy, Ismenia Mendes, Nneka Okafor, Tom Pecinka, Kario Pereira-Bailey, Miguel Perez, Grace Rao, Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson.
Visit the Drilling Company/Shakespeare in the Parking Lot:
Visit the Public Theater: http://publictheater.org/
Press: John Wyszniewski, Rachel Shearer, Blake Zidell at Blake Zidell& Associates.
Essay and photo (c) 2016 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved. Photo of Troilus and Cressida: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.