Posted by: strugglesome | August 5, 2010

Parks and Recreation: Shakespeare In Clark Park’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

As a deeply sarcastic person, I’m always a little concerned about literalists. For one thing, they never seem to get my sense of humor, and for another, I grow concerned about them injuring themselves in some way and me being in some way responsible. But this summer, much to my chagrin, everyone seems to be going literal. First it was Pig Iron which their announcement that they will be spending the next four years exploring A Midsummer Night’s Dream, some of which I can only assume we will be witnessing this September at the Live Arts Festival in Cankerblossom. Then I found out that Maukingbird Theatre Company will be presenting a gender-bending anti-red state production of the Bard’s summertime romp at the end of this month. And just this past weekend, I found myself lounging on a beach chair, clasping a plastic cup filled with wine in one hand and observing Shakespeare in Clark Park’s charming if predictable production of, you guessed it, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Much like jean-leggings (or jeggings, if you want the English Language to cry a bit) and Justin Bieber, this too appears to be a summer trend.

This year is the fifth anniversary of Shakespeare in Clark Park, but only my second anniversary of knowing of their existence. Last year I was lucky enough to witness their adorable if uneven production of A Comedy of Errors, directed by Alex Torra (a Pig Iron member who served as Dramaturg in this year’s piece) and set in a vaguely Turkish landscape. Sadly enough, the evening I attended the show it had rained, and I was obliged to watch the show from the confines of the Curio Theater. Lovely as that space is, putting a show planned for the outdoors inside a converted church loses something in transplantation. This year, however, the weather was clear and lovely, and I was able to enjoy the Clark Park aspect of the play as well as the Shakespeare. And I must admit, neither was a disappointment.

Because the company uses an area of Clark Park that has the natural shape of an amphitheater everyone seemed to be comfortably seated with their picnics, children, friends, and clear violations of open container policies. I can’t say I blame them, however, as I was doing the exact same thing. Solidly directed by Maria Moller and clad in Erica Hoelscher’s hipster meets Lolita meets the seventies meets a carnival meets a auto shop costumes (now there is a meeting I would love to witness), the cast of 13 players cheerfully bounced around the grassy space decorated with trees made of bicycle parts, the fanciful design by Stephen Hungerford and echoed in the bicycle carts used by the actors to roll around the world of the play. A clever move, and certainly a very Philadelphian one, considering just how many bike helmets were scattered about the enormous audience bank. The play zipped along at a brisk pace, hitting the rhythms and stride of Shakespearean dialogue adeptly. The live music, composed by Andrew Nelson, was both a true highlight and a perfect backdrop to the action, part merry-go-round, part ethereal, all excellently created and performed.  The lovers were appropriately pouty and impetuous and, if not particularly sympathetic, then certainly amusing.   The fairies, most of whom also played the mechanicals, were solid, and Victoria Frings and Bradley Wrenn as Titania/Hippolyta and Oberion/Theseus respectively, were far more then just that, sparring and circling each other and bringing a well constructed passionate heat to an otherwise completely wholesome experience. But it was the mechanicals, blundering around in matching jumpsuits and cracking bad jokes, that really stole the show. Perhaps is was Ryan Walter”s deliciously hammy performance as Nick Bottom, the weaver, wannabe actor, all ego and no id. Or perhaps it was the famous and well performed  “play-within-a-play”, the fractured re-telling of the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe that ends the play and never fails to delight. Whatever it was, in a landscape of aristocrats and magical creatures, it was the blue-collar bozos who got the most laughs.

What was most interesting about this particular production of this often produced play, is how little ownership the supernatural element seemed to have over the piece. In my experience of this play stress is often placed heavily on the woods as a dangerous lawless place of temptation, an environment where conventions must give over to the magical world, where the natural (human) element is subverted by the unnatural (fairy) element. But this production didn’t include that sense in any strong way. Instead it felt more like an invasion of the supernatural world by the human element, which made for interesting viewing, assuming that was an intentional choice. Maybe this is what happens when you let people run amok in a park, maybe they take over the park, rather then letting the park take them over. Whatever happens, it’s entertaining to watch.

Any play performed outdoors is bound to be in direct competition with it’s surroundings. Some might posit that this is actually the more authentic way to see Shakespeare, whose original productions were conducted in the open air with natural light, rowdy audiences, and the occasional fight breaking out during a particularly moving death scene.  Others might say it’s merely astoundingly annoying to have to strain to hear an already complex language over the sounds of screaming children and cars. But, frankly, I really enjoy outdoor theater because, well, anything can happen. For example, during the performance I witnessed a drunken fellow wander aimlessly just to the tip of the staging area, patting the large speakers like they were his pets. As he was lead away from the show by some friends, my companion pointed to him and murmured,  look, now there is some theater for you.

Well, that’s two down (counting the Robot Etudes), and two to go. I’m already feeling a little winded. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy this play. I mean, it’s got fairies, mechanics, lovers and drugs, it’s like a rave but without the glow sticks, what’s not to like? But if we are going to suddenly be seasonally appropriate in all of our theatrical choices, I better see some excellent productions of A Winter’s Tale once December rolls around….

Shakespeare in Clark Park has ended their run for the summer, but should you want to check out their site and sign up for updates you can click here.

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