Shakespeare in mud

What did the Bard ever do to us for us to treat him so?

Blame it on the rotten weather this spring. Or maybe not, as few theater companies plan with the Farmer's Almanac in hand. But whatever the reason, the number of theater-in-the-park performances this summer has dwindled significantly from years past. While only a year or two ago it seemed you couldn't traverse a grassy sward without entering from stage left and exiting stage right, only outdoor theater vets Greenstage, Wooden O, and Theater Schmeater are mounting shows this summer. Other well-established companies, including Seattle Shakespeare Festival, New City, and One World Theater, have other plans during the summer months, and Vashon Island's UMO Ensemble has moved indoors at Sand Point for the premiere of Millennium Circus.

It's hard to blame any of the performers for the lack of bucolic enthusiasm. Remember when your classmates were able to convince the professor to have class out on the lawn? What an attractive idea, evoking those classical paintings where a great philosopher sits in an Arcadian paradise as his students twine vine leaves in their hair and photosynthesize his great learning.

Now remember how little work actually got done once you got out there. The fact is, outdoor theater is a tricky proposition, prone to so many distractions it's a wonder the ancient Greeks didn't just lie around all night getting schnockered instead of nailing down the planks of Western Civilization. Modern problems range from mosquitoes to loose dogs to the Blue Angels, all of whom make the necessary suspension of disbelief more than a little tricky. (At a performance of One World's The Doctor in Spite of Himself a couple of years back, the actors in Moli貥's 17th-century comedy were given to yelling "Incoming!" and flinging themselves to the ground whenever the Pentagon's gift to popular entertainment flew over.)

Even assuming that speedboats, volleyball players, drum circles, and other disturbances don't occur, there's still a lot for the poor performers to overcome. If you think jeans feel confining on a hot day, think about wearing full Elizabethan costume. Or projecting your voice while speaking Shakespearean verse. There's also little in a traditional American dramatic education, which focuses on techniques fostered by Stanislavski and his ilk, that prepares one for the lack of subtlety required from park shows. A grimace or a mumble that would make a big impression on a TV or film screen is lost completely when you're playing on a stage bounded by the horizon. Outdoor acting requires a sort of heroic athleticism more prevalent in contact sports than in theater.

Then of course there's the weather, which can turn the sunniest production of A Midsummer Night's Dream into the heath of King Lear. I've heard of entire casts being laid low with heatstroke one week and flu the next after a four-week run of outdoor theater, and while it can be an enjoyable novelty to suffer through a summer shower once with a cast, it's not one you'll want to repeat anytime soon.

So why do these shows outdoors at all? Even the Greeks and Shakespeare had more of a theater than most of these groups contend with, and when the indoor facilities of Blackfriars became available in 1608, there's no record of Will being reticent to move his company out of the unroofed Globe. And aren't these plays, with their intrigues, lost lovers, twins, and battle scenes (all in verse, of course) difficult enough to follow without contending with the thousand natural distractions that open air is prone to?

But of course there are reasons, aside from sheer cussedness, why park shows in general and Shakespeare in particular have a certain magic. Theater is at its populist best as an art form when it's performed in a summer park setting. Out of the air-conditioned confines of a dark room, people are more inclined to give a real reaction back to the performers. Linda Lombardi, actress and assistant director of Greenstage's production of The Comedy of Errors (now indoors at the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center, but moving to parks July 31), believes that outdoor audiences seem closer to the actors. "There's no real fourth wall. People aren't timid about laughing, and they're often more boisterous about the funny stuff. We take advantage of this by doing some of our exits and entrances through the audience, and after the show we always mingle and chat with them as part of the pass-the-hat."

Theater Schmeater's managing director, Anthony Winkler, echoes this sentiment. "The heart of our company is taking theater to where people are. Summer in Seattle, people are in the parks." Describing his experience doing park shows as "an inevitable blast," Winkler adds that being able to see your audience creates a much greater feeling of connection for the actors. "When you can see all these people sprawling around in front of you, you can just take certain moments to connect to them."

Outdoor stagings

Greenstage—The company's off and running already with an indoor production of The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare's early comedy given a silent-movie slapstick send-up by director Tom Smith. Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center, 104 17th S. $15-$18. Fri-Sat at 8, Sun at 2. Then while this show takes a month-long breather, the company stages Timon of Athens, the tragedy of a philanthropist who finds himself abandoned by all when his money runs out, only to find his friends return when he comes across a brigand's hoard. Timon: Volunteer Park 7/9-10; Gas Works Park 7/16-17; Lincoln Park 7/23-24, 7/30-31, 8/6-7; Gas Works Park 8/13-14; Seward Park 8/20-21; Volunteer Park 8/27-28, 9/3-5. Comedy: Lincoln Park 7/31-8/1; Lyndale Park 8/5; Lincoln Park 8/7-8; Gas Works Park 8/14-15; Seward Park 8/21; Kent Canterbury Faire 8/22; Volunteer Park 8/28; Snoqualmie Falls Forest Theater 8/29; Volunteer Park 9/4-10/6. All shows are pass-the-hat. Call 748-1551 for times, schedules, and information.

Wooden O Theater—Not one but two shows from this group, which has staged productions at Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island for several years now. First up is All's Well that Ends Well, Shakespeare's "problem comedy" in which a virtuous maid, cast off by her lover, must don a soldier's garb to follow him and keep him to his promise of fidelity. George Mount's production aims to evoke the period of post-Napoleonic France, and the "pre-feminist" literature of the Bront볠and Jane Austen as it follows the resourceful Helena on her quest. 7/22-24, 7/29-31, 8/5-7, all performances at 7, Luther Burbank Park, Mercer Island. Call 236-3545 for schedules and 541-2371 for general information. Free. Then director Carys Kresny tackles Cymbeline, the late Shakespearean romance that's got it all: battles, politics, lovers separated, magical transformations, songs, even a visit from Jupiter himself. (So why haven't you heard of it, you wonder? Because it's an absolute monster of a play to get right.) Kresny is a smart and sensitive director, and her vision of a Victorian summer outing where all goes awry is an interesting theme for this brilliant but complex play. Bellevue, location TBA 7/9; Mercer Dale Park, Mercer Island 7/10; Lynndale Park, Lynnwood 7/15; Angle Lake Park, SeaTac 7/17; Seward Park 7/23-24; Game Farm Park, Auburn 7/30; Issaquah, location TBA 7/31. All performances at 7. Call 541-2371 for schedules and general information. Free.

Theater Schmeater—The Sophoclean tragedy Oedipus Rex is the Schmee's choice for the 1999 Park Show, which this year has been moved to September, partly to accommodate the theater's annual visit from area schools. Oedipus the King is so clever that he outsmarted the Sphinx, but there's no escaping the destiny of the gods when a plague falls on the city. Volunteer Park 8/20-22; Magnuson Park 8/27-29, 9/3-6; Gas Works Park 9/10-12, 9/17-19. Runs Fri-Sat at 7, Sat-Sun matinees at 2. Call 324-5801 for schedules and information. Free.

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