Out, Out, Damn Play

Performing classic dramas outdoors is no walk in the park.

This year's outdoor theater season is marked, as usual, by a plentiful helping of Shakespeare, with a pretty even split between the blood-feuding action of the historical dramas and the bucolic romance of the classic comedies. Whether it's the political intrigues of the War of the Roses or a pastoral romp in the Forest of Arden, audiences will be treated to productions focusing on fast pacing and visual splendor, where broad gestures and booming voices compete with the buzz and hum of a midsummer afternoon.

This year, three local companies— Wooden O Theatre Productions, GreenStage, and Theater Schmeater— combine forces to offer a full slate of classic productions in parks around King County. Wooden O will present Hamlet and As You Like It; GreenStage will stage A Midsummer Night's Dream and a condensed version of all three parts of Henry VI; and Theater Schmeater will offer David Richmond's adaptation of Robin Hood. All three companies converge for an outdoor theater festival in Volunteer Park, Saturday, July 15–Sunday, July 16.

According to George Mount, founding artistic director for Wooden O Theatre Productions, bringing Shakespeare into the open air brings the productions an air of authenticity. "The great thing about doing Shakespeare is knowing that the plays were written to be performed outdoors," he says. "I find that we discover a scope to the emotional landscape. It's much bigger and it's much more full, and the plays support it. They're made to be that grand."

The trick, Mount adds, is to channel what he calls the old style of theatrical performance, which utilizes "the broader gestures, while still being honest about the broadness." It's a far more presentational technique, he says, and the tightrope an actor must walk is bringing that bigness to the stage without becoming cartoonish.

That's a challenge for actors, many of whom are trained in the "post- Stanislavsky" school of realism, with its focus on intimate settings and subtle gestures. Ken Holmes, a 13-year member of GreenStage who will direct this year's condensed version of Henry VI, jokes that the only way to translate the choices actors make on a small stage to an outdoor setting is to be "huge and loud."

Then there's the issue of abridgment. For a director, bringing a play as intricate and verbose as Hamlet into a park presents its unique set of risks and opportunities. Mount says he's paring the play down to what he calls its family dynamic, while cutting out some of the more archaic Elizabethan references and allusions to classical and Greek characters. "My standard joke is we're doing half of Hamlet," he says, adding that his goal is to keep the pace quick and engaging.

Mount notes, "You take the lid off your performance space and you've got a lot of challenges as far as acoustics and maintaining an audience's attention. We have to cut to really keep the story and action moving without sacrificing the beauty of the language." Also, he adds, "we spent a lot of our production money on costumes, a dynamic and interesting set, and we've thrown in a little bit of music here and there." The idea is to create as family-oriented a version of Shakespeare as possible—to make "great entertainment in the biggest sense of the word."


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