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Journeying With Shakespeare - Essay

Is Shakespeare enjoying a new Renaissance Era these days? It would seem so, judging by the number of productions recently on the boards….at least in our area. So far this summer, this critic has seen seven—yes, SEVEN-- offerings. And there are more to come in August. The Elm Shakespeare Company”s “The Winter’s Tale” opens August 19 at New Haven’s Edgerton Park. And the Stratford Library and Square One Theatre Company will sponsor an August 14 visit of the Hudson Shakespeare Company of New Jersey, with its production of “The Tempest.” Held on the grounds of the long-closed American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, this historic site, for a brief moment, will re-experience past glories.

In short, there is no end to the Shakespearean immersion. Is this overkill? Yes and no. Some of the productions soared, while others were merely ordinary. Yet, invariably, one comes away edified. However often we see or read Shakespeare’s plays, there are always new insights to be gained from the text. Or, it may be, as our lives move along, a new perspective can be brought to an old, favorite play. To quote a cliché, Shakespeare never goes out of style.

Apparently others feel the same way. Why else are there so many thriving companies which offer their wares, mostly free to the public, in park-like settings? Here in western Connecticut we have Shakespeare-on the-Sound in Rowayton, Summer Theatre of New Canaan (in that town), Connecticut Free Shakespeare at Bridgeport’s Beardsley Zoo, and Elm Shakespeare in New Haven. And these Equity companies are also offering special children-related programs in numerous forms. Shakespeare promises to move on to the next generation.

But back to this summer. This time around I saw (in chronological order) “Othello,” “Henry IV,” “A Winter’s Tale,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Richard III,” and TWO versions of “Twelfth Night.” These were not all confined to Connecticut. Joined by my colleague/friend David Rosenberg, we also wandered north to the Berkshires and south to New York City. (Rosenberg, more intrepid than I, may well have covered a few more Shakespearean productions.)

How did Shakespeare fare this summer, from a personal perspective? The highlights of the summer began with moments at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, New York, with Al Pacino playing a memorable Shylock in“The Merchant of Venice.” Pacino brought a special humanity to the character—neither all-victim nor all-villain, but a man of strengths and weaknesses. On the same stage, playing in tandem, was “The Winter’s Tale,” with a vibrant feature performance from Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Her moving words, though spoken quietly, reached to the farthest regions of the theater.

At the other end of the spectrum, in a large room at the Bridgeport City Hall Annex, was a children’s version of “Twelfth Night.” The latter effort included twenty middle-school-age children from Bridgeport and surrounding towns who performed their own compact, speeded-up version. (My own ten-year-old grandson Ethan had a riveting experience- playing “the second policeman” and joining in ensemble work.) This was sponsored by Bridgeport Free Shakespeare, which, like many of their fellow theaters, works to involve children in theater. It was a four-day “theater camp,” run by the excellent teacher/actress Rebekah Czarnecki (of the Los Angeles-based educational theater company, Much Ado About Shakespeare). The children came away with skills in projecting, stage combat, ensemble work, and a new love of theater.

The theater camp warmed a grandmother’s heart, but other performances achieved a like effect. In Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s “H4—Henry IV,” Brian Silliman was a commanding Falstaff, a monumental figure of comedy and tragedy. And, up in the Berkshires, at Shakespeare & Company’s “Richard III,” a minor character runs away with the show. It is Elizabeth Ingram playing an indomitable, chilling old Queen Margaret.

In short, Shakespeare lives on, a continuing vibrant presence in our cultural scene. And if one has the stamina to sample freely (it’s mostly free), it is indeed a sumptuous feast.

--Irene Backalenick
Aug. 3, 2010

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