Summer is Shakespeare’s big season, in Philadelphia and around the nation. A few miles north of Quakertown, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival operates during the warmest months. So do troupes in West Philadelphia’s Clark Park, in a South Philly park and in parks around the region. This year, though, the Bard has made springtime visits.
Three of his plays are running simultaneously in the city: Arden Theatre Company’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Lantern Theater’s “Coriolanus,” both in Center City, and Quintessence Theatre Group’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (in their production, Quintessence spells it as “Labor’s”) in Mount Airy. I didn’t see the Quintessence version — the bar the company sets for its Shakespeare productions is high and well reached — but I was able to get to the two others. I’m happy to report that in Philly, the Bard is looking his springtime best.
It’s pure coincidence that three professional theater companies are putting up Shakespeare’s work all at once during their regular seasons in a sort of springtime big Bard bonanza. All three produce Shakespeare from time to time but no one conspired to offer Philadelphians an Elizabethan feast.
Producing Shakespeare can be a good deal for a stage company. He died 401 years ago, so there’s no family around to collect royalties. And there’s no one to sue you if you edit him down — a standard practice by directors for modern audiences. Plus, he brings in all those school kids, mostly to extra performances in the morning, a boon to the box office as well as to students and teachers.
But that’s all icing — the cake is Shakespeare himself: the galloping plots, the enormous range of emotional baggage his plays pack. They speak directly to the human condition. Through the choices theater companies make in presenting them, the plays seem strangely current, even prescient.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a giddy comedy produced so often around the country you’d think no one could find anything new in it. But that’s the magic of great theater — I’ve seen that play more times than I can remember, yet never like the Arden show that Matt Pfeiffer inventively directs. It’s full of original music the cast plays and sings, sophisticated comic interpretations and high-level physicality. Plus, a ton of smooching. Mary Tuomanen leads with her spunky, irresistible portrayal of the sprite Puck, and everyone has a great time bringing the play alive.
At St. Stephen’s Theater, off Market Street, a Shakespeare of a completely different sort shows up. His play “Coriolanus,” which deserves to be produced far more often than it is, concerns the great Roman warrior who’s forced into politics. It has unseemly connections to our times, and Lantern Theater’s leader Charles McMahon exploits them forcefully in his staging. When there’s action in the Roman marketplace, we see it both on stage and broadcast onto the walls as breaking news, live from station SPQR.
And as the people turn against Coriolanus and the city’s tribunes spread what amounts to fake news, this play about hubris and revenge is almost unbearably current. Yet Shakespeare wrote every word, beautifully delivered from a sparkling cast headed by Robert Lyons as Coriolanus.
The city’s third concurrent Shakespeare, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” from Quintessence, is about school boys who make a questionable pact to stop chasing women and tend to their studies. Good luck to that, I say. (Shakespeare, too.) If you want to catch these shows, make plans now because they don’t run through the month. After all, Shakespeare’s got to get ready for his more standard summer appearances.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is extended through April 15 at Arden Theatre, on Second Street north of Market Street. 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
“Coriolanus,” produced by Lantern Theater, runs through April 16 at St. Stephen’s Theater, behind St. Stephen’s Church on 10th Street between Market and Chestnut streets. 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost,” produced by Quintessence Theatre Group, runs through April 21 at the Sedgwick Theater, on Germantown Avenue between Durham Street and Mount Airy Avenue. 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.