Years ago, while out for a walk, my family and I stumbled into a production of Saratoga Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Congress Park. My daughter was seven, my son was four. Taking them to Williamstown or Lenox wasn’t really an option at that time, but wandering into Congress Park amongst the gathering crowd, both kids were drawn to the music and activity (and, yes, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cart). We found a spot on the lawn just as the play began. Honestly, I don’t remember the specifics of the production, but I remember the experience of watching my kids watch the show.
A precocious kid and bookworm, my daughter, who was already blowing through the last of the Harry Potter series by then, asked if she could read the play. Back at home, I gave her my Riverside and told her to give it a shot. To my surprise, she did. And then she went on to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For several nights, whenever I tucked her in, she’d pepper me with questions about the plays, the Clown and Sir Toby, Bottom and Puck, specific words and phrases and situations. Of course, she didn’t understand a lot of what she was reading, but she did get the gist of it, she heard the music in the language, and she sensed something curious and magical in the text. Or maybe that’s just me projecting.
When the Saratoga Shakespeare Company announced that their 2017 summer season would be dubbed “A Season of Magic,” I thought about this memory. It was a sort of alchemy in itself – the experience of seeing the actors perform in Congress Park charged her imagination and gave life to the words on a page that otherwise would make little to no sense to a seven-year-old. It was more than an intellectual curiosity – it was wonder, which in my mind, is akin to magic. The theme of Saratoga Shakespeare’s 2017 season, especially given the two shows chosen for the mainstage, seemed all the more fitting.
Billed as Saratoga’s longest running professional theater, the Saratoga Shakespeare Company is celebrating its eighteenth season. Since 2000, when it debuted with its first production of Twelfth Night, it has offered free, accessible, professional Shakespeare productions to the residents and visitors of the Capital Region. Over the years, taking in a show in Congress Park has become a tradition of sorts for summer Saratogians, families, theatre-goers, and picnic-lovers.
In 2015, they expanded the season to accommodate two mainstage productions, as well as outreach and community engagement programs. Adding an additional mainstage show was a risk – the time, money, talent, and resources needed to mount a second production is substantial – but the audience responded, and the company continues to look toward the future. “The goal is to grow the company to become one of Saratoga’s cultural jewels,” says David Girard, associate artistic director. For many who make Saratoga Shakespeare’s productions part of their summer traditions, it’s already a cultural highlight. If not yet a jewel, then it’s close to it.
This year, Saratoga Shakespeare presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale. It’s an interesting pairing. Beyond the reference to seasons in the title, both plays deal with magic and mischief, albeit in very different ways. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Girard notes is the most requested play by Saratoga Shakespeare’s patrons, is an early comedy, written around the same time as Romeo and Juliet. Like Romeo and Juliet, it has a youthful, teenage quality to it. Think young lovers, arranged marriages, tyrant fathers, magical forests, fairies and sprites, a play within a play, and mistaken identity – the stuff of Shakespeare. When four young lovers escape to a forest outside Athens, they are manipulated by fairies and magic potions, and of course, everything gets mucked up. It’s fun, childish, and playful. Girard says that they “fell in love with Wes Broulik” last season. “There’s so much joy in his works, and he connects to the aesthetic we’re developing.” When Broulik pitched his directorial vision for show, Saratoga Shakespeare knew it was time to present Midsummer again. The production opened on July 18, and it runs through July 29 on the Alfred Z. Solomon Stage in Congress Park.
The Winter’s Tale, which opens August 1, is one of Shakespeare’s late romances, which are characterized by their mixture of comedy and tragedy, as well as spectacle – think bears, wild storms, David Lynchian manipulations of time, and so on. Written around 1610, it is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and it shares more in common with The Tempest and King Lear than earlier comedies like Midsummer. Leontes, the king of Bohemia, is yet another of Shakespeare’s tyrants with jealousy issues. He accuses his wife, Hermione, of having an affair, banishes his newborn child, and puts his wife on trial. After he makes this terrible mess, the Oracle declares that Hermione is innocent and declares that he’ll have no heir until the abandoned child is found. Madness ensues. I won’t give away the rest, but I’ll note that the play features a spectacular ending, as well as what Girard calls “the magic of Bohemia.” It also features one of my favorite characters – Autolycus. “With Midsummer, there is an external magic that manifests itself in the forest,” notes Girard. “But with The Winter’s Tale, there’s an internal magic. It’s much more mature. Also, it’s more muscular from an actor’s perspective.” Girard explains that they do the play with nine actors, which requires a lot of doubling. This production opens on August 1 and runs through August 5.
Summer versus winter, early play versus late play, comedy versus tragicomedy/romance – there’s no doubt these plays complement one another, and they provide a neat set of bookends to explore Shakespeare’s use of magic through his career. As much as Shakespeare generates the magic in the plays through language and plotting and spectacle, as Girard notes, the season’s two guest directors – Broulik and Liz Carlson-Guerin – bring a spark and a fire of their own to their productions. “You’re in great hands with these directors,” Girard says. “The concept, the staging, the choreography – there’s so much to love about this season and these two directors.”
“It’s an exciting year,” he continues. Girard’s genuine enthusiasm for the works, the Company, and the directors is apparent in his voice. It’s contagious. As he explains, both plays offer new challenges (think of the infamous stage direction to Act III of The Winter’s Tale — “Exit, pursued by a bear”), and these challenges present wonderful opportunities for the directors to problem solve using theatrical magic. “Expect the unexpected,” Girard says.
Along those same lines, he points out that it’s all done in a wonderful setting. “We’re best in the park,” he says, noting their longtime home. “It’s Globe style. The audience is right there with you for every aside.” He notes the aesthetic Saratoga Shakespeare is developing, and how the audience has come to expect an immersive experience. Actors often interact with the audience, and this participation works to engage the crowd and involve them in ways they don’t necessarily receive at other venues. It’s also mission-driven, given that one of the organization’s goals is to make Shakespeare open and accessible (and fun) for all. Girard, who has directed several of the Company’s plays, often tells his actors that they’re aiming for “passionate intensity with clinical clarity.” As a group, Saratoga Shakespeare “takes great pride in presenting Shakespeare’s work with great clarity and continues to develop a visually arresting and audience immersive aesthetic.”
Saratoga Shakespeare’s productions feature members of Actors’ Equity Association, which is the stage actors’ professional union, as well as a talented group of non-union professional actors. This year’s shows features local favorites Brenny Rabine and John Romeo; Saratoga Shakespeare veterans Tim Dugan, Hilary Parker, and Wesley Broulik; and professional debuts by Shayne David Cameris and Lucy Miller. The casts are rounded out by several professionals with national and international credits, including Paul Kuhn, Matt Lytle, Shayna Schmidt, Brian Ott, and Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch.
Lastly, the Saratoga Shakespeare Young Theatre Professionals will also offer a community outreach production of Twelfth Night, directed by Doug Seldin. These performances, which feature college-aged aspiring artists, will take place during the first week of August in various locations.
All performances of the mainstage shows are in Congress Park in Saratoga Springs, on the Alfred Z. Solomon Stage at 6pm. Admission is free.
Check out www.saratogashakespeare.com for more information.