Outdoor Shakespeare performances come to East Falls, Chestnut Hill

When Paul Parente brainstormed ideas for his traveling outdoor production of “Twelfth Night,” coming soon to East Falls and Chestnut Hill, he immediately ruled out stiff and heavy Elizabethan-style costumes.

A fan of westerns like “High Noon” and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” Parente wondered if Shakespeare’s comedy of shipwrecked twins, pranks and hidden identity might not lend itself to the dichotomies of the Wild West in the late 1800s.

And so, the bold concept for Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company‘s (CCTC) 10th anniversary production was born.

Go play outside

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Instead of trying to get folks indoors, CCTC meets them halfway by bringing its free productions to parks throughout the region each July.

With minimal set pieces, a bit of lighting once dusk falls and a sound system, a few hundred people can bring their blankets or chairs — plus a picnic if they’re hungry — and enjoy the arts outdoors on a summer evening.

This year’s series opened last Thursday in Shakespeare Park near the Free Library’s Central Branch, in honor of the city-wide Year of the Bard celebration for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. It makes its way throughout the region until July 26.

Shakespeare fans in Northwest Philadelphia have two chances to catch the show in their own backyard: At McMichael Park in East Falls this Thursday and at Morris Arboretum on Wednesday, July 23.

This marks CCTC’s third year at the Arboretum, and Parente said that the company also looks forward to its East Falls show.

“McMichael Park has always been a very strong venue for us; very nice crowd there,” said Parente, a founding member and first-time director who spends most of the year as an English and drama teacher at Avon Grove Charter School.

The path here

CCTC launched a decade ago with two performances of George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man.” It has been growing ever since, staging shows like “The Taming of the Shrew” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in up to 14 different parks in one month.

Of founding a company for “classic theater that would tour into parks” in the summertime, he said, “At the time, there really wasn’t anyone who did what we did.”

An occasional CCTC performer, he said his contributions have mostly been on the technical side until now, as well as loading and driving the company truck and helping the cast and director figure out the logistics of staging the performance in a new place every time.

“The different locations always add plenty of different flavor to the productions,” he added, citing challenges like actors having to figure out the right timing and direction for their entrances afresh each night, since no two landscapes are alike.

Hank Williams meets Shakespeare

There’s plenty of dancing and music in Parente’s “Twelfth Night” staging, some inspired country-western ballads.

Realizing that it’s an anachronism to introduce love-thwarted Duke Orsino with Hank Williams’ mid-20th-century “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” he said the sound and lyrics were just too perfect to pass up.

Once he decided on an American-west setting, the director realized that a coastal location was crucial to the play’s action, so he settled on California.

That’s appropriate, given that the play’s heroine, Viola (Angela Smith), finds herself washed up in a strange land and disguises herself as man only to fall secretly in love with Orsino (Jamison Foreman), who loves Olivia (Jessica DalCanton), who in turn becomes besotted with Viola’s male alter ego.

“The [American] West was a place where many immigrants were able to shuck off old identities and forge new ones,” Parente writes in the playbill.

Performance details

CTC’s “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” runs through July 26, with a performance at McMichael Park at 7 p.m. Thursday (in case of rain, the show will be at William Penn Charter School) and at Morris Arboretum at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 23 (under the Café Tent in case of rain).

The McMichael Park event is free, and admission to the Morris Arboretum show is a “pay what you will” donation to the arboretum.

For the full line-up of dates and locations, visit www.commonwealthclassictheatre.org.

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