Julia (Jenna Augen) and Proteus (Peter Cambor)  sing "A Lot of Livin' to Do" in <I>The Two Gentlemen of Verona</I>.
Julia (Jenna Augen) and Proteus (Peter Cambor) sing "A Lot of Livin' to Do" in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
(© Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Peter Cambor knows that there are drawbacks to performing outdoors in July. "I sweat like an NBA player," he admitted. "At the end of the night you just peel everything off you, wring it out once, and put it in the laundry bin." The NCIS: Los Angeles actor performs this disgusting ritual after every performance of Shakespeare on the Common's The Two Gentlemen of Verona (through July 28), in which he plays Proteus, the Verona playboy who's looking to score in the sin city...Milan.

The tag line for this production of Two Gents is scrawled across the show poster: "What happens in Milan, stays in Milan." Director Steven Maler has transposed Shakespeare's text — as so many directors of Shakespeare do — onto an unlikely, yet tonally perfect setting: Rat Pack-era Las Vegas. "Valentine and Proteus are nightclub-singer types," explained Cambor. "We're a junior act in Atlantic City [Verona], but Milan is Vegas…the big time." Cambor wears a wool suit in the show, hence all the perspiration.

The actual text of the play concerns two best friends who go to Milan to sow their wild oats. Valentine (Andrew Burnap) falls madly in love with Silvia, the Duke's daughter, but Proteus schemes to steal her for himself. After a series of dirty tricks, this light-hearted romp culminates in a particularly tense scene in which Proteus essentially promises to rape Silvia if he cannot have her willingly. "I'll force thee yield to my desire," Proteus threatens. He's thwarted at the last minute by Valentine and Proteus' Verona girlfriend, Julia, who has been disguised as a boy all along. Everyone forgives Proteus for being a pig, shares a good laugh, and plans for a joyful double marriage.

"This has always been seen as one of Shakespeare's problem plays," said Cambor when considering this big rape turnaround in Act V. "In Elizabethan times it wasn't seen as such a big deal, but for a modern audience it's a problem." That's why Maler set this production in Vegas, a setting in which what elsewhere might be considered date rape can still be brushed off as youthful indiscretion. "The idea of this place of sin and going against your friends helps it to make sense."

It also gives the production an excuse to perform some classic American standards. "I get to sing Sinatra songs in front of ten thousand people," Cambor said exuberantly. "What could possibly be better than that?"

Valentine (Andrew Burnap) introduces Proteus (Peter Cambor) to Silvia (Ellen Adair) as Thurio (Evan Sanderson) looks on.
Valentine (Andrew Burnap) introduces Proteus (Peter Cambor) to Silvia (Ellen Adair) as Thurio (Evan Sanderson) looks on.
(© Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
That's right: The audience for Shakespeare on the Common sometimes reaches over 10,000 people in one night. The website for the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, the producing organization behind this annual free play, boasts 111,000 total audience members for its 2010 production of Othello. Considering the show runs for less than a month in the summer, this is something that would be impossible for any brick-and-mortar establishment.

Beyond the confines of house size, however, there is something special about Shakespeare on the Common that draws such a large and diverse audience. "I was in a cab the other day and the driver told me he sees Shakespeare on the Common every summer," recalled Cambor. "It's unbelievable. This is the real thing."

Fittingly for this home of the American Revolution, free outdoor theater like Shakespeare on the Common represents the democratization of live theater: anyone can enjoy it and, barring inclement weather, there are few obstacles to seeing a show. "It's ticket prices or ‘theatre with an –re' that scares people away," Cambor hypothesized. "This is an inviting, open space — it's the oldest public park in the United States. You can come in and see for yourself and become interested."

We've also written about the wide variety of free summertime theater in New York City. Free outdoor productions are becoming an increasingly visible part of the metropolitan landscape of other major American cities, as well. Here are a few highlights:

CHICAGO

The Comedy of Errors (July 26-August 25)
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents this fast-paced and zany tale of mistaken identity in parks all over the city.

The Comedy of Errors (through August 4)
Two productions, both alike in dignity
In fair Chicago, where we lay our scene.
Check out the other traveling Comedy of Errors productions from Spectralia Theatre.

LOS ANGELES

All's Well That Ends Well and King John (through August 10)
Shakespeare by the Sea presents two of the Bard's shows; one comedy, one history, in repertory all over the Greater Los Angeles area...not just by the sea.

Macbeth and As You Like It (through September 1)
The Independent Shakespeare Co. performs the bard's tale of witchcraft and ambition in repertory with this classic pastoral comedy. Performances take place at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park.

SEATTLE

The Tempest and Henry V (July 11-August 11)
Seattle Shakespeare Company offers touring productions of the exciting war history Henry V and the play about shipwrecks and magic The Tempest.

SAN FRANCISCO

Macbeth (through September 22)
Clocking in at 100 minutes with no intermission, this shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies is made even shorter in a slimmed-down production from The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. It tours parks throughout the Bay Area.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Much Ado About Nothing (August 20-September 1)
Ok, so this is not really outdoor theater, as it is presented within the confines of Sidney Harman Hall, but it is still presented free of charge to the general public. You can enjoy watching Beatrice and Benedick duke it out with the added comfort of air-conditioning.