By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Maybe we ought to rethink this outdoor Shakespeare thing. It was 40 years ago this summer that Public Theatre founder Joseph Papp moved his New York Shakespeare Festival into the just-built, open-air Delacorte Theatre in Central Park and made watching the works of the Bard a must-do event for Manhattan playgoers. Now there are more than 100 theater festivals in the United States devoted solely to the works of Shakespeare, with outdoor summer productions happening from Alabama to Oregon. The Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, with two productions on the boards right now, has been at it for 30 years and is one of the largest continuing outdoor Shakespeare companies in the nation.
But outdoors ain't what it used to be. Thirty years ago the biggest annoyance when the SFD did its plays in the Fair Park Bandshell was the frequent buzz of low-flying airliners approaching Love Field. Now the festival's home is the sprawling lawn at the Samuell-Grand Park amphitheater, out of the path of Southwest but clearly on the flight pattern of scads of hungry skeeters. No matter how much one loves the works of Willy the Shake, it's hard to appreciate poetry when you're slapping yourself silly to avoid being eaten alive.
Then there are the culcha-vulchas who can't so easily be swatted away. Though the festival is promoted as a free event, open to the public, when you get there, it's clear that the socioeconomic snob system is firmly in place. Festival "members" (and members of the press) are invited to park close to the gates and are admitted early. Those who've made a monetary contribution to the SFD ($25 to $5,000 and up) are permitted to spread their acres of blankets and fold-out chairs, and their upscale picnic gear (complete with crystal wine goblets and smorgasbords of gourmet goodies) inside special roped-off areas affording them the best sightlines in front of the stage.
Corporate logos abound at the festival grounds, along with signs designating choice spots on the grass for the "Yale Club" and various banks and brokerage firms. The linen-clad poobahs are shamelessly catered to. The free-range rabble, bless their Dorito-eatin' hearts, must trudge forth from yonder parking lots and wait in long lines in the broiling late-afternoon sun. Once herded inside, they're encouraged to "donate" an admission fee of five bucks or more and are shuffled into general seating areas relegated to the sidelines.
At least in Shakespeare's day, the working-class folk attending the Globe and Blackfriars got spots near the stage. The Elizabethan fat cats sat in back.
But the Chablis-sippin' snoots occupying the softest grass at Samuell-Grand will tell you that they deserve accommodation because it's their contributions keeping the Shakespeare fest alive. And they make every effort to convince naysayers that such festivals are the lifeblood of civilized urban existence. They place the Shakespeare festival right up there with those other high-minded cultural sacred cows, public radio and opera. The Shakespeare Festival of Dallas takes itself so seriously that it claims to be a "community builder," according to its latest press kit, seeking to "revitalize the magic and mystery of Shakespeare under the stars."
So has it lived up to the promise of magic, mystery and revitalization with its two latest productions, Henry IVand The Two Gentlemen of Verona? Not by a long shot, unfortunately. SFD's Henry IV proves pompous, with incongruously contemporary costumes and jarring anachronisms--recorded sounds of car alarms and helicopters--thrown in for no more reason than perhaps to wake the Lexus drivers out of their boozy stupor during hour No. 3.
Two Gentlemen of Verona--reviewed at last weekend's preview in Addison--comes galloping in with a roar, only to whiffle out with a whinny at the end of three long hours of noisy horseplay.
Two Gentlemen, produced in partnership with the Our Endeavors Theater Company, is, by rough count, the SFD's 69th production of a work of Shakespeare since the festival began in 1972. It continues at Samuell-Grand Park as the Tuesday-Wednesday evening offering through July 17, while the combined Henry IV Parts 1 & 2gets the stage on weekends through July 21.
Desperate to infuse their plays with pyrotechnics, the directors--Raphael Parry with Henry IV and Matthew Earnest with Gentlemen--have gone nuts with silly gimmicks, so both plays suffer from the same weaknesses. They're overacted, overdirected and overlong. Like Henry IV, with its two-hour first act, Two Gentlemen feels interminable, its five chatty acts playing out into three loud hours. That's a tiring slog that bogs down with many redundant speeches that could have been chopped or eliminated entirely. (Only the purists sneer at editing Shakespeare. Joseph Papp allowed it with impunity. Shakespeare himself created his plays from a pastiche of other redacted sources. Two Gentlemenbegan as a long Spanish prose romance combined with the ending of a 1531 play by Thomas Elyot.)
Henry IVand Two Gentlemen feature lead actors who've been directed to emote in an enormously hammy style. In Henry IV it's Kyle McClaran, struggling to carry the play as a Falstaff nobody could love. Gentlemen's Mark Farr, as love-smitten Proteus, exhibits a too-ardent love of his own performance. He holds his vowels longer than Pavarotti and throws his gestures skyward like a shipwreck survivor signaling for help. Both shows are deafeningly overmiked. Fort Worth canceled its Shakespeare festival this summer for lack of funds, but if Tarrant County residents opened their windows these summer eves, they probably could catch some overamplified speeches wafting over from East Dallas.
At least Two Gentlemen is a comedy. Though not on par with Shakespeare's funnier and more masterful Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Gentlemen does have its share of rude mechanicals and dizzying wordplay.
Here, an exchange between the servant Speed and his master, Proteus:
Speed: The shepherd seeks the sheep, and not the sheep the shepherd; but I seek my master, and my master seeks not me: therefore I am no sheep.
Proteus: The sheep for fodder follow the shepherd; the shepherd for food follows not the sheep: thou for wages followest thy master; thy master for wages follows not thee: therefore thou art a sheep.
Speed: Such another proof will make me cry "baa."
If you consider that hilarity of a high order, that's pretty much what you get in Two Gentlemen of Verona.
The plot is Love Boat circa 1594. Two friends, Valentine (played by David Lozano) and Proteus (Mark Farr), leave home and meet up in Milan. Proteus has ditched his girlfriend Julia (Laurie McNair) in Verona. Valentine is smitten with Silvia (Cindy Beall), whose father is a duke. But when Proteus lays eyes on Silvia, he forgets Julia and sets his cap for Silvia, never mind his friendship with Valentine.
Julia finds out about the betrayal and, disguised as a man, travels to Milan to spy on her unfaithful ex. Proteus turns dastardly, at one point trying to rape Silvia (a scene not included in the SFD production, thank you for small favors). Eventually both men hook back up with their original loves and all live merrily ever after.
When Papp launched the outdoor Shakespeare craze--and the careers of budding Public Theatre stars Meryl Streep, Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman, Raul Julia and others--there was nothing like it going on. Papp made watching Shakespeare a happening. He put characters in modern dress and added a rock sensibility. Critics praised the Public's productions for peeling away the fustiness of Shakespeare's plays and letting the characters sound and act like contemporary people. The plays raised eyebrows by refusing to be highbrow.
But four decades later, the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas looks and sounds like pap, not Papp. The contemporary touches are gratuitous, the stagings pretentious. The acting is unremarkable. And the whole see-and-be-seen, center-of-the-lawn, clink-the-flutes atmosphere out front is a big stinking bore.