The Bard Wins Big

Summer Shakespeare in the park gets off to a good start.

Maybe the summer has me feeling sentimental, but I just spent two days fending off backache, sunburn, and mosquitoes, and I'm pretty happy about it. I took the weekend to sit in the grass for a couple of local park productions, finding to my great relief that Shakespeare in the great outdoors is still as rewarding as reputation would have it. Wooden O's Julius Caesar (ends Sun., Aug. 1; for the complete schedule) is far craftier and more ambitious than anyone has the right to expect from free entertainment. It's a great-looking spin on the play, which director George Mount gooses with a real pop urgency that recognizes the text's increasing relevance. The assassination of Caesar (Paul Mullin) seems to speak to current questions of honor and loyalty in the midst of oppressive political doublespeak; it makes you wonder why Hollywood couldn't have found some work for Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep in this classic instead of messing with The Manchurian Candidate. Carisa Bush's costumes lend the leads an Armani menace, and Mount has the production playing like a singularly trenchant, erudite episode of The West Wing—complete with scurrying, dark-suited security advisers and insistent television reporters—without falling prey to flashy, postmodern nonsense. Though the physical trappings are amusing, Mount doesn't lose sight of the fact that it's the characters' concerns that need to have contemporary resonance. When Portia (Heather Hawkins) begs husband Brutus (Daniel Tierney) to let her in on whatever is weighing heavily on his heart, her plea has the tenor of any political wife's. I wish Mount hadn't gone quite so far with piped-in sound effects and musical underscoring that often compete with his actors (this may just be a case of figuring out appropriate decibel levels), though in most places the conceit never gets too showy for its own good. The production drags some—Mount is better with individual pieces than he is with pacing—but feels consistently thoughtful. In addition to Hawkins' memorably charged supporting turn and Tierney's sympathetic assassin Brutus, Mount's ensemble is remarkably strong, with Mount himself in fine form as a nervy, sometimes sniveling Cassius (George Stephanopoulos' ears are surely burning somewhere . . . ). You might argue that Mullin could manage a meatier evocation of his character's hubris, but I like what Mount has him doing here; his Caesar has the easily distracted confidence of some earnest, deluded CEO, and if that isn't an apt metaphor for a modern poli­tician, I don't know what is. A sleek, savvy Garlyn Punao does terrific work as a methodically vengeful Antony; the calm build of his speech turning an angry mob in his favor is a highlight. Almost all of the smaller roles—with a special nod to Aimee Bruneau's imposing Casca—add to the show's surprisingly snazzy pedigree. Greenstage is a trifle more hit-or-miss with its All's Well That Ends Well (ends Sat., Aug. 28; for complete schedule), yet its shaggy, valiant sweetness makes it just as compelling as Wooden O's Caesar. This is, after all, the perfect way to spend a warm night: allowing yourself to get caught up in the complications of romantic bliss. Helena (Heather M. Persinger) loves arrogant Bertram (Zaki Abdelhamid), who's above her station but not beyond her reach thanks to her wily ingenuity and the powers of healing she's inherited from her late father. She cures the ailing King of France (Ray Irvin, in a nice turn) to earn Bertram's hand, and he then flies the coop until she can successfully dupe him into loving her. The two make one of those untenable couples you only tolerate in Shakespeare; you have to accept that Helena would want a dope like Bertram because he's her dope, dammit, and that's just the way love works sometimes. And Persinger is a beguilingly offbeat lead: She's fetching and funny, but just unconventional enough to make you understand why Abdelhamid's jejune Bertram wouldn't know she's a catch. Director Carol Roscoe's production is raggedy yet resourceful, fueled by a lightheartedness and her ability to punch things up with a vibrant character turn just when you fear the show is about to sag. The ensemble is full of different capabilities that all seem affably convinced of the Bard's charm; their goodwill is such that the piece goes over even when the production stumbles. Nearly every performance that doesn't really work is followed by someone who has a way with the play. Karen Nelsen is laudable (if a smidge lofty) as Bertram's worrisome mother, and both Ken Holmes and David J. Dodge are having a grand old time as, respectively, the foolish Parolles and clown Lavatch. Whichever production you choose, there's something ineffably uplifting about experiencing a centuries-old play amongst lovers in lawn chairs. Drag yourself away from Spider-Man 2 long enough to take in some material that will linger a little longer in your memory.

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