Monday, July 23, 2007

About town: Shakespeare in the park

One of the great pleasures that summer can bring is outdoor theater -- especially Shakespeare performed in parks across the country. While we in Montana don't get to have much of it, we are fortunate to have Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, which is a state treasure -- a treasure shared with our neighboring states as well.

So, having never before seen a production of the Merry Wives of Windsor, a play that often drops between the cracks in the repertoire, it was off to Peaks to Plains Park, picnic basket in hand, in spite of the lingering swelter of this most unpleasant July.

The effort was well-rewarded. Even adequately performed Shakespeare pays dividends of enjoyment -- enjoyment of good English and good wit if nothing else.

This year's company is perhaps the strongest in recent memory. Abbey Siegworth brought a sensitivity to the relatively minor role of Mistress Quickly, making her into a quietly persistent figure holding unrequited love for the most undeserving Sir John Falstaff (robustly played by Michael Kane) -- in addition to the plot-moving role that Quickly plays as the go-between for the mischievous "merry wives" and Falstaff.

Even though Falstaff is the purported center of the play, it is truly an ensemble piece that requires at least a half-dozen strong actors to get the most out of it -- and this year's company has at least that many.

Perhaps the biggest improvement over past years is the recent addition of an excellent sound system that augments the voices on stage -- a must for effective outdoor performances (especially when the occasional jet is on approach to Logan Airport -- a couple of the minor comic figures used those moments to gawk at the sky, as though they were transplants from Elizabethan England seeing and hearing this fantastic sight for the first time.)

The sets and costumes hit a perfect balance between ornament and excessive spareness, the transitions were deft, the dialogue clear and avoiding any extreme of excessively faux British accents.

By the end, the sun had set, and the unlit stage was falling into shadows. Given that the final scene takes place at night in the forest, it worked perfectly.

A final note -- sometimes Shakespeare plays are breathed a little extra life by using costumes and sets from a completely different era (remember that chilling dystopian film version of Richard III with Ian McKellen and Annette Bening?)

But the impact of such productions depends on a familiarity with traditional stagings. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is to be commended for "playing it straight" for Montana and regional audiences, most of whom probably haven't seen productions of these plays before, and who deserve to see them in their traditional form.

That said, there was still a little modern tongue-in-cheek wink at the audience through the incidental music chosen for scene changes: themes to classic television shows ranging from "Captain Kangaroo" to "Leave it to Beaver" to "My Three Sons" to "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." It was a little reminder that Shakespeare's plays were in a way like television in their own day -- attended by Londoners of all walks of life.

As long as good productions are around, Shakespeare can always remain so.

Now, if we can only figure out how to get more than one or two Shakespeare plays a summer. Is it too much to hope that with time, two companies might be able to be supported -- hitting interested cities twice in the summer?


cooker71 said...

This isn't a Montana headline. Since when does anyone care about your reviews?

Montana Headlines said...

Your point isn't clear. Perhaps you'd like to make one?