There are enough challenges in a Shakespeare play for any troupe of actors, and often for audiences. But on Thursday, the opening-night challenges bombarding the production of ‘Twelfth Night’ by Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company were probably more than even Shakespeare could have considered.
Commonwealth Classic was beginning its tenth year of taking a summer production to a different park through the region each night – this year, 13 parks over a little more than two weeks, a daunting task that means a new set-up nightly. The Free Library of Philadelphia, celebrating the 450th year of the Bard’s birth, teamed up with Commonwealth Classic to stage the opening of “Twelfth Night” on the swath of grass that fronts the library’s regal main branch along the Parkway.
A nice partnership but for the first half of “Twelfth Night,” a bad marriage. This was the first time Commonwealth Classic performed on the Parkway and I hope it’s the last. Everything that could go technically wrong did so, as if on cue. And the biggest thing that went wrong turned out to be a blessing, but I’ll save that for a minute.
It’s hard enough to parse Elizabethan English inside a theater, let alone an outdoor setting, so it was a bold stroke for director Paul Parente to move the play’s location from Illyria (now Croatia) and set it somewhere in California during the late 19th century. This does not even begin to explain why the actors deliver the Elizabethan English in Southern accents, as if Tennessee Williams had a hand in the script. But, hey, if music be the food uh luv, play aahwn!
On the Parkway on Thursday night, you could have squeezed out the performance of your life. But beyond the first few rows of watchers no one would know, given the solid thrum of car traffic a few yards away punctuated by buses, ramped up by motorcycles and accessorized by the occasional helicopter overhead. Engines seemed to roar even louder at key moments in the first half. John Kolbinski’s sound design couldn’t begin to compete and besides, several parts of the performance area were dead spots in the wireless amplification. The actors, at times, could have achieved the same effect by standing at the Jersey shoreline and shouting into the ocean.
And then shortly after 8 p.m. a strange thing happened and it saved the evening. The street lights along the Parkway went on, and the power surge blew out the show’s sound system and lighting, entirely. Poor Nathan Foley, who was doing a heroic job in his long and funny monologue in which he’s deceived about a lover, was all of a sudden talking to himself. He strained to project – and did, but even that was not enough. Then came the intermission.
The power could not be easily restored, and the Free Library welcomed everyone to its large, marbled lobby for a second half. The actors regrouped. The library staff appeared with folding chairs for the majority of the audience that didn’t bring its own lawn chairs. About 45 minutes after the first half, the second half began. The audience, perhaps 175, actually grew even though many people who’d been watching on the Parkway opted out at intermission. They were replaced, apparently, by people who’d been visiting the library inside.
At this point, I was mentally applauding the audience. Through all the Parkway distractions, they were mostly intent on trying to follow the play. A couple came with a Shakespeare text. Others seemed simply to enjoy live performance – free, too – on a pleasant summer’s night. And by the time we were relocated, the audience was rooting for the cast in a way that underscores how each side of a stage affects the other.
“We don’t have lights and we don’t have sound,” producing artistic director Mary Ann Baldwin told the audience inside the lobby, “but the actors are being very flexible.
“We don’t have a set,” she said, and there wasn’t much of one, anyway. “We have two benches and we’re going to go for it!” At that point for the cheering audience, the actors could do no wrong.
And here’s the thing: They really could do no wrong. Even though a marbled lobby is also not the greatest location for a play, the second half of this “Twelfth Night” was breezy, passionate and Big Fun as the tale of deceptions, mistaken identities and love played to its ending. The actors – I think they were so up for doing their best – turned in brisk and crisp performances: Jessica DalCanton as the countess Olivia, who falls in love with a guy who’s really a girl (Angela Smith); the drunken ne’er-do-well Sir Toby Belch (John Jezior) and his bummy pals (Leonard Kelly and Eric Scotolati); the duke Orsino (Jamison Foreman) and others.
The costumes by Courtney Boches fit the billing: cowpoke hats, neckerchiefs, bandanas, lariat bowties. Shakespeare’s lyrics – he asks for a good deal of music in the play – are sung by Stephen Lyons, to the nice Western-tinged music he composed for them. (Lyons also plays the fool, Feste.) The second half comes with many touches that include original recordings of recognizable Western-themed orchestrations. I’m sure I heard the Marlboro Man riding in there somewhere.
The cast and crew of this “Twelfth Night” will have less to contend with in other open spaces around the region for the next two weeks – nothing compares to performing in the middle of the Parkway. And Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company can maintain that at the end of its first decade of productions, it didn’t just have another season, it got some seasoning.
“Twelfth Night,” produced through July 26 by Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company, runs at a different park in the region for each performance. The shows are free and unticketed except in Kimberton Park, Phoenixville, which sells tickets to support its programming. More, including rain-out information, is at www.commonwealthclassictheatre.org.
Here is the schedule of remaining performances.
–Friday. (July 11): Kimberton Park Phoenixville. 7 p.m.–Saturday (July 12): Everhart Park, West Chester. 7 p.m.–Sunday (July 13): Auburn Road Vineyard, Pilesgrove, N.J. 7 p.m.–July 15: The Willows Estate, Radnor. 7 p.m.–July 16: East Goshen Park. 7 p.m.–July 17: McMichael Park, East Falls, Philadelphia. 7 p.m.–July 18: Brookhaven Municipal Lawn. 7 p.m.–July 19: West Goshen Community Park. 7 p.m.–July 23: Morris Arboretum, Chestnut Hill. 6:30 p.m.–July 24: Whites Road Park, Lansdale. 7:30 p.m.–July 25: The Earthworks, West Pikeland Cultural Center. 7 p.m.–July 26: 20th Century Club Lawn, Lansdowne. 7 p.m.