Those supercomputers programmed to determine the last digit of pi have it easy. A more taxing calculation: Totalling the number of Shakespeare productions that grace our city’s parks, parking lots, and stages each summer. (Call it Stratford-on-Hudson.) Perhaps that pesky 18th Sonnet inextricably associates Shakespeare and summer in people’s minds. But comparing your average New York Shakespeare production to a summer’s day—I’ll take the day. Cramped rehearsal schedules, scrambles for venues, large casts, and some positively crippling anxiety of influence—it’s no small task for an amateur, or even professional, company to stage Shakespeare well. But last week, and not without trepidation, I played the numbers game, attending five Shakespeare plays—two comedies, two romances, and a tragedy—three in plein air and two in traditional theaters.
For a decade or so, Gorilla Rep has charged itself with performing a summer season of energetic, accessible, and free Shakespeare productions. This summer, though, artistic director Christopher Carter Sanderson may be monkeying around too much. The 2001 roster boasts eight plays, seven of them directed by Sanderson. His Cymbeline in Riverside Park seems slapdash. There’s plenty of the fuss, volume, and racing to different locales typical of Gorilla Rep pieces, but it somehow lacks the vigor and insouciance of the finer ones. The actors all have their intentions clear, but the verse hampers them rather than pricks them on. Sometimes the poetry sticks in their mouths like so much peanut butter, sometimes it’s chomped through in order to get to the next scene change. Never does it seem as though the actors fully understand the language; they know the words, but for all the nuance they bring to them, they might have learned them phonetically. And, with the play running two hours and 45 minutes, you get tired of rushing around from one similar location to the next. (Except when yummy Michael Colby Jones as Posthumus is in the next location. Very worth rushing after.)
There was very little rushing in the 2texans production of The Tempest, except rushing the Tompkins Square soccer players to finish their match so that the play could begin. The audience was ensconced on a comfortable bench with a summer breeze about and occasional Italian ice in hand. Director Matt Daniels, no mean comic actor himself, encourages his cast to mug enough for a whole ceramics shop. Mark Greenfield delights as the Gatorade-stealing and foot-licking Caliban; Jenni Graham and Matthew Miser impress as the jesters Stephano and Trinculo. But while the other actors are able, the less comic sections seem unanchored. When Prospero (Alan Benditt) o’erthrows his charms, he might as well be o’erthrowing the volleyball that at one point bounced onstage. Rebekkah Ross made a charming Miranda, but Lisa Hargus appeared misdirected as Ariel—though not nearly as bad as her estimation “Where the bee sucks, there suck I” would lead one to believe.
Very little sucks in the LITE Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Prospect Park tennis house, but very little surprises or astounds. This genial play receives a genial production, directed and designed like some lost screwball reels from the 1920s. While the physical comedy and many of the performances could use greater precision, the directing troika of Adam Melnick, Peter Campbell, and Leigh Anderson make three inspired choices. The first is to refigure the rude mechanicals as park workers clad in green uniforms and clutching weed whackers. The second is drafting Deborah Rosen to design the costumes—she dresses the lovers in infinite varieties of cream while stuffing the fairies into bodysuits padded out with bumps and bustles, like Rei Kawakubo on an opium kick. The choice of the broad approach and curved porticoes of the tennis house provides a setting at once monumental and whimsical.
The concrete walls and unairconditioned expanses of the Present Company Theatorium provide a setting at once hot and stuffy. It’s there the Neolight Theatre Company and Penguin Productions stage a stifling, three-and-a-half-hour Othello, Moor of Venice. They might want to resubtitle it More of Penis, as the considerable nudity is its only remarkable aspect (maybe the director misread the script’s frequent exclamations of “Ho!”). The stripping might be more palatable if some of the text was stripped as well, for if this production aims to be sexy it certainly isn’t tight. All of the text appears, amended with unnecessary prose interpolations by director-adapter Andrew Cucci—such as Iago’s opening line, “Venice. We’re back in Venice. I forgot how much I hate Venice.” As in the Cymbeline, few of the actors grasp the verse, but here they don’t even look as though they could paraphrase it. They are, however, delighted to yell, fight, spit, sweat, and shimmy out of their costumes. My, but that Desdemona keeps herself well-trimmed.
While still feeling the morning-after effects of Othello, I arrived at the Aquila Theatre Company’s Much Ado About Nothing (45 Bleecker Street). I already had a line from the play in my head: Leonato’s “All your tediousness on me, ha!” But the current production lacks tedium utterly. Inspired by The Avengers and Mission: Impossible, this mod-ernistic production is a heady spin of bowler hats, PVC, and the “Peter Gunn” theme. Aquila is a well-established company with confidence, funding, and a troupe of well-trained American and English actors. The choreography is precise, performances thoughtful, the staging brisk and imaginative. And it’s an almost unparalleled pleasure to watch actors speak Shakespeare with intelligence and humor. Here, Aquila’s Brits somewhat outclass their American colleagues, especially Lisa Carter as a supremely witty Beatrice and Richard Willis as the gentle Don Pedro and avaricious Borachio. The production may be more giddy and informal than the script calls for, but perhaps a cheerful tale’s best for summer.