Back in the 16th century when William Shakespeare was writing and performing his plays, they were presented in theaters where nature was often close at hand and with open sky overhead: Many of the venues, including London’s Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s theatrical home, were without roofs. “Groundlings,” the rabble who paid almost nothing to stand in the exposed central area and boo at the villains and cheer for the heroes, were exposed to the elements. That meant that Shakespeare’s plays needed to be broadly conceived with large, identifiable characters and powerful stories. It’s also why we still look forward to productions “in the park” where outdoor performance makes them come to life. Such events and festivals dot the countryside in English-speaking countries, near and far, with names like “Bard on the Beach,” “Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan” and the “Free Will Shakespeare Festival.”
The best known of these has been going on annually for a half-century in New York City’s Central Park. The Delacorte Theater, built specifically for these July and August performances, is an open-air amphitheater with a seating capacity of 1,800. For the summer of 2012, two brilliantly conceived productions are making full use of the al fresco setting — Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy As You Like It, set in the Forest of Arden, and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a musical fairytale mash-up with a cast that features Academy Award nominee Amy Adams and Tony Award winner Donna Murphy. These productions are typically among the most sought-after tickets of the summer in a city awash in theater. Performances are free, but the demand is such that tickets need to be offered through an online lottery system.
The evening performances are as much for celebrity-watching as for theatergoing, what with a bountiful turnout of actors’ friends and other notables.
You won’t have to work quite so hard — nor will you be surrounded by such A-list personages — for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s “Shakespeare in the Park Tour.” Rather than focus on one venue, CSC delivers its productions to more than a dozen parks and venues throughout the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area. Several performances are sponsored by “ArtsWave Presents.” The organization that raises funds to support Cincinnati’s varied arts organizations does its part to foster and encourage art across Greater Cincinnati, and their support is enabling evenings anchored by the Cincy Shakes team with added audience participation elements for the entire family.
The first of CSC’s touring performances will be on Saturday with the 7 p.m. opening of The Tempest at Seasongood Pavilion in Eden Park. The tale of Prospero, a powerful sorcerer, and his innocent daughter Miranda marooned on a desert island is being staged by CSC company member Billy Chace; seven acting apprentices form the touring company — Charlie Cromer, Travis Emery, Jessie Wray Goodman, Sam Rabinovitz, Maggie Lou Rader and Zach Schutte — which adapts to each park and venue they visit. Most of the actors play multiple roles. (Macbeth has more than 20 characters). The Tempest will be repeated on Sunday evening at McDonald Commons Park in Madeira and on Aug. 11 on the lawn at Clifton Cultural Arts Center. ArtsWave supports the Washington Park performance on Sept. 9. (Go to www.cincyshakes.com for a schedule.)
CSC’s tour adds Macbeth to its mix starting on Aug. 12, when it opens at Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine, certain to become a new favorite spot for outdoor performances. A stop in West Chester’s Keehner Park on Aug. 18 is supported by ArtsWave. Macbeth will be performed in Eden Park on Aug. 31. This production, staged by CSC veteran actress and director Sara Clark, uses the same set of actors as The Tempest.
CSC’s Macbeth is likely to be a more traditional reduction of the story of murderous ambition than one by the National Theatre of Scotland that recently featured Alan Cumming in a one-man version of the horrific narrative. It spent two weeks in early July indoors at New York City’s Lincoln Center, where it earned rave reviews for its inventive reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s powerful tragedy. It was set in the clinical green-tiled room of a psychiatric ward where Cumming played a lone patient, inhabiting each role himself, including some of Shakespeare’s most complex and troubled characters. That approach might not work outdoors, but wouldn’t it be fascinating to see? In the meantime, brush up your Shakespeare in a park closer to home — or in a part of town where you’d like to have an outing.
Contact Rick Pender: firstname.lastname@example.org