Not Your Grandma’s Shakespeare!

July 13, 2010 at 3:17 pm (Live Performances, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

I must be butta, cuz I’m on a roll. I attended yet another live performance of Shakespeare last weekend! Gaithersburg was the Maryland Shakespeare Festival’s first stop on a tour performing Romeo and Juliet at outdoor venues around the state this month. What fun!

The MSF artistic director, Becky Kemper, trained at Mary Baldwin College and the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia (home of the Blackfriars playhouse recreation I visited last month), so it’s not surprising that this troupe uses original staging practices (audience interaction, fast pace, minimalist sets, actors playing more than one character, live music, etc). From their website:

Company Aesthetic – The Festival Atmosphere & Original Practices

This is not your grandma’s Shakespeare!  Maryland Shakespeare Festival believes in playing like they did in Shakespeare’s day, and is one of seven Original Practice Laboratories in the world.  With extensive research and training by the core company, MSF works to bring Shakespeare back to life as the playwright intended for his plays, players and playhouses.  We play with (and light) the audience, including them in the story.  We include interludes (instead of intermission) filled with live contemporary music.  We create an atmosphere of play and imagination, of poetry and visceral storytelling.  The jokes are funny, the sad parts touching.  We believe Shakespeare was never meant to be a dose of cultural medicine, but a vibrant, fun, and communal event that makes a difference in our lives.  It is a central piece of our mission to bring Shakespeare out of the dark and stuffy theater and into the park where everyone, no matter their cultural or economic background, can enjoy.  For more information on what it means to perform Shakespeare using Original Practices, click here.

The show is so much fun! I arrived a couple minutes before showtime, while the cast was providing a fun and spirited preview of the play’s action. The weather was picture perfect (in stark contrast to the humid heat at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company performance I attended on the 4th of July) and there was a nice crowd assembled for the freebie show at Gaithersburg City Hall.

These are professional actors, and the show is well done, even with less-than-perfect circumstances. Gaithersburg is a railroad town with the stage located maybe 30 feet from an active track and right on a busy street. There was a train with whistle blaring early in the show, but the players just stopped action briefly to let it pass. No problem! There was a guy talking on his cell phone and a heckler (maybe with Tourette’s) through the first half of the show, but the actors didn’t seem to notice. The show must go on! And it did, much to my enjoyment. I sat right up front at the edge of the grass… a great view.

The players are well cast. Juliet is believably young and naive; Romeo is her dreamy young lover. They’re a good match. Tybalt (played by a woman) is his usual annoying self. I really love Mercutio in this version. He is fiery and excitable. Perfect! He did the whole Queen Mab speech, and I was surprised at how exceedingly long it felt in performance. It’s so odd!

Like at the performance I went to in Staunton, Virginia, the players provide musical entertainment during the intermissions. They played “Sweet Caroline” (changing the lyrics to “Sweet Rosaline”) during the first intermission and during the second break I really enjoyed their acoustic version of “All Along the Watchtower”  (marred only by the guy behind me who apparently thought it was call and response and then added his very shrill and weird wildcat howls). Anyhow.

There’s free Shakespeare in parks everywhere you look this summer. Get out and enjoy some! And if you’re in Maryland, try to catch the MSF’s Romeo and Juliet at a park near you!

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11 Comments

  1. Tue Sorensen said,

    Wow. Times like this, I wish I lived in the U.S.

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Yeah, you just want to hear the guy having the flashback to Woodstock, right? :) So, is there not free Shakespeare in the park in Europe? It’s pretty ubiquitous in the US. Of varying quality, I’m sure. This was nice. Or are you jealous of the original staging practices? I think these seem pretty unique around here… not many doing this, but I like it very much.

  2. Tue Sorensen said,

    There is no free Shakespeare in the park anywhere around me (in the Copenhagen area), that’s for sure. There might be some in England, conceivably. We have maybe one or two Shakespeare plays a year in the royal theater, or elsewhere in the country, but it’s really very little. Considering this, I’m pretty amazed that so much is done for the arts in the U.S. These free performances, are they supported with state funds, or are they just arranged and organized by ordinary people in drama clubs?

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Where I live, there are free performances of all kinds (lots of free concerts, kids’ shows, etc.) offered all over the place all the time during the summer! Seriously, any given weekend night, there are like 4-5 free shows/concerts I could go to within a couple miles of my house. I don’t have to look far for free entertainment. I think it’s mostly underwritten by local government with grants/donations from local companies.

      The free Shakespeare thing is a summer tradition I’ve seen offered pretty much everywhere I’ve lived over the years. I shouldn’t say it’s available “everywhere,” as I have only lived in a few places. My guess is that most large cities in the US offer free Shakespeare performances during the summer, and many small towns have a visiting troupe like the one that came to my town.

      I know Washington DC has had free Shakespeare for many years… here’s the one coming up in DC: http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/about/ffa/ And it’s also sponsored by corporations and local govt.

      Also in DC, there are pretty much always several Shakespeare plays in performance at any given time (tix can be pricey, though). We have the Shakespeare Theater Company and the Folger downtown. We have another group called Synetic theater that does a lot of Shakespeare… without the words. Then there are these regional theaters nearby like I’ve been posting about. And there are traveling shows that visit the local universities and theaters. Those are all professional shows… then there’s community theater all over the place, too… like the Midsummer Night’s Dream show I saw a couple months ago.

      If I want to see Shakespeare (or any kind of theater/concert/etc) around here, I can do it without a lot of effort pretty much any time I want (given the money and the time to go out).

      Oh, and then there’s the really artsy stuff. Like DC is having a fringe festival now and I saw that there was “Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending” — http://dctheatrescene.com/2010/07/13/romeo-and-juliet-choose-your-own-ending/ Looked pretty funny!

      Did I answer your question? So… that’s the deal. DC maybe a little more vibrant arts scene than some other places. But I’ve also seen very nice arts scenes in small towns in America (and cheaper, easier to get to than stuff downtown here, which is a barrier for me), so I think it’s pretty common here. Maybe other readers will pipe in.

  3. Tue Sorensen said,

    Thanks for the info. I know there’s an annual Shakespeare Festival (the world’s biggest) in Washington – that is something I *have* to visit before I die! :-)

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      I think that was a one-time-only thing a few years ago: http://dc.about.com/od/specialevents/a/ShakespeareFest.htm

      • Tue Sorensen said,

        Good lord!! You mean there ISN’T an annual Folger Shakespeare Festival?? Aw, that is such a disappointment! I did hear about that event in 2007 (the same year I went to Stratford), but I understood it to be an annual event. Alas, the world is a poorer place now than I thought it was! There really should be a big annual Shakespeare festival in the U.S. With all those Renaissance Faires and acting troupes everywhere you’d think it would be possible to round up enough interested people to do a WS festival…

        Ha! No Gentleman of Verona – that *is* funny! :-)

        • orwhatyouwill said,

          Sorry to be the bearer of bad news! I don’t know why they don’t do it annually. I guess the Folger probably had a big grant to organize that for their anniversary. I was totally not into Shakespeare mode that year (busy with little ones) and other than knowing it was happening, I wasn’t aware of it at all. The RennFest people seem to me not necessarily into WS. I only went to one once and it seemed to me more about fantasy/dressing up/drinking than WS! But yeah, you’re right, there seems to be plenty of interest here in WS, so why not an annual festival?

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Ha ha… I was looking through the fringe fest listings in the paper today and saw they’re also doing Macbeth (incorporating Brazilian dance/martial arts!)
      http://dctheatrescene.com/2010/07/11/macbeth-4/ and No Gentlemen of Verona. LOL http://www.culturecapital.com/event.php?id=10400

  4. Bare Bard « Or What You Will said,

    [...] that you check out the Maryland Shakespeare Festival. I posted about these folks during the summer outdoor freebie Shakespeare season. They are playing several Bare Bard experiments this season and it is an amazing way to [...]

  5. Shakespeare That Sucketh Not! « Or What You Will said,

    [...] of their Bare Bard’s (The Merchant of Venice) and I went to their summer freebie last year, Romeo and Juliet. They are an energetic company, exploring the original staging practices of Shakespeare’s [...]

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