The Bard and the Brits

Free Shakespeare, competing fringe festivals, and a Hot! month of queer performance--it must be summertime in New York City. Although most Broadway and Off-Broadway shows either end their seasons or wind down by mid-June, the months of July and August continue to provide exciting theatergoing opportunities--and generally at a lower budget than typical Broadway fare.

The Winter's Tale in Central Park.
The Winter's Tale in Central Park.
For example, what would summer be without free Shakespeare in the Park? The New York Shakespeare Festival/Joseph Papp Public Theater celebrates its 45th season with productions of The Winter's Tale (June 21 through July 16), and Julius Caesar (August 8 through September 3), both at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Brian Kulick directs the first production, with a cast including Randy Danson, Keith David, Aunjanue Ellis, and Bronson Pinchot. It's not quite as star-studded as some previous Shakespeare in the Park productions (Patrick Stewart in The Tempest; André Braugher in Henry V), but Kulick's vision as a director is certainly something to look forward to, as is the opportunity to see one of Shakespeare's later romantic plays. "One of the greatest things about Shakespeare is how he uses language," says Kulick. "He'll juxtapose one word or one image off of another and create a different kind of friction. In the later plays, that sort of work is done in terms of a whole play structure--putting opposites together to see what kind of spark they'll make. It becomes part of the strategy."

The free outdoor performances of Shakespeare in the Park are, in and of themselves, a winning strategy, with tickets distributed in all five New York City boroughs. "I don't know anybody that has anything but incredible fondness for just the idea of going out, having picnics, and watching Shakespeare plays under the stars, and the moon, and Belvedere Castle," says Barry Edelstein, who will direct Julius Caesar. "It's just fantastic." Edelstein, who is also Artistic Director of Classic Stage Company (CSC), is no stranger to Shakespeare: he says he has either directed or dramaturged over half of the Bard's plays.

Aquila's The Comedy of Errors
Aquila's The Comedy of Errors
The classics are also important to the Aquila Theater Company London/New York, the first British/American Equity-approved Off-Broadway company. Aquila reprises its critically-acclaimed production of Homer's The Iliad: Book One from June 29 through August 6. It will be presented in rotating repertory with Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors at Hemmerdinger Hall. In addition, the company's production of Cyrano de Bergerac begins performances August 17 at Clark Studio, on Lincoln Center Plaza.


Plays and Players

A few doors down, Lincoln Center Theater's much anticipated production of Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter is currently in previews, with an opening set for July 27. The play examines racism on a college campus from the perspective of a young white female dean (played by Hope Davis). Daniel Sullivan--whose most recent credits include the critically-acclaimed productions of A Moon for the Misbegotten, Dinner with Friends--directs this hard-hitting look at white guilt.

Eighteen leading African-American playwrights are showcased in Great Black One-Acts 2000, produced by Woodie King Jr.'s National Black Touring Circuit. Alice Childress, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, and Pearl Cleage are just a few of the dramatists represented in this festival running from July 5 through August 6 at the Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Arts Center. "We received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to do 50 years of one-act plays from 1950 to the present," explains King. "And we've got one of the best ensemble of actors, as well as some of the best designers, and best directors."

New Federal Theater'sThe Dance on Widow's Row
New Federal Theater's
The Dance on Widow's Row
King also heads The New Federal Theater, which is currently premiering Samm-Art Williams' The Dance on Widow's Row through July 23 at their home at the Henry Street Settlement. "The comedy in the play is bittersweet and poignant, with a lot of pathos in it," says King. "I think [Williams] is a master of the comedic element in black life." The play tells the tale of four rich widows who have buried nine husbands between them. (They're rumored to have killed their spouses, so potential suitors should be wary!)

For a different take on matrimonial difficulties, try Bill C. Davis' Avow, which previews at the Century Center beginning July 14, and an opening set for July 27. In this play, Davis, best known for his 1980 play Mass Appeal, tackles the subject of same-sex marriage when two men ask a progressive priest to bless their union. The ensemble cast includes Christopher Sieber, Scott Ferrara, Alan Campbell, Sarah Knowlton, and Jane Powell. Jack Hofsiss directs.

Speaking of theater notables, Philip Seymour Hoffman goes Off-Off Broadway to direct the LAByrinth Theater Company's production of Jesus Hopped the A Train at Center Stage. Stephen Adly Guirgis' prison-courtroom-comic drama runs from July 18 through August 12.



Fringe, Cringe, and Frolic

No summer in New York these days is complete without The New York International Fringe Festival, which is only one of three "fringe" festivals operating this summer. The original Fringe celebrates its fourth season from August 16 through 27 with roughly 175 productions representing 17 U.S. states and 12 countries. "We have about 1200 individual performances over the 11 days, which is just insane," says artistic director John Clancy. "There's a big increase in the international [contingent], with about 30 international companies at this point."

The Fringe--run by an all-volunteer staff--runs in a total of 20 venues on the Lower East Side and East Village. "You can comfortably walk from venue to venue," Clancy says. In addition, negotiations are currently under way for a centralized busking and socializing area (possibly in Tompkins Square Park), as well as a designated watering hole for Fringe participants and audiences to relax and have a beer.

In 1999, the Fringe was challenged by the upstart Pure Pop Festival, run by Aaron Beall (a co-founder of the Fringe). At least one of the productions featured in Pure Pop is getting another chance at life: Marc Maron's Jerusalem Syndrome begins an Off-Broadway run at the Westbeth beginning July 19, with the opening scheduled for July 27. This year, Pure Pop offers two series of performances, running from August 10 through October 9: 33 Swoons: A Portrait of Anton Chekhov playing at Nada Show World and Natural Born Pop: 20 from the 20th Century at Nada Classic.

The other Fringe challenger this year is The Midtown International Theatre Festival, brought to you by the people at OOBR (the Off-Off Broadway Review). Running from August 10 through September 3, the Festival intentionally overlaps with the Fringe and has been open about vying for the "International" title. Yet executive producer (and OOBR honcho) John Chatterton thinks there's room in the city for all these festivals, even if they sometimes go after the same audience. "I don't believe in cut-throat competition in theater," he claims. "I believe in genteel competition. I would say we're complementing the Fringe."

Or, more to the point, just how international is the Midtown International Theatre Festival? "Well, we have someone from Australia," says Chatterton. "And someone from Texas..."

Hot!, Ice, and Living Room

Perhaps faring better in the international arena is Ice Factory 2000, which focuses on women directors from various countries. Representatives from France, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, and the U.S. participate in this annual festival at the Ohio Theatre, which runs from July 5 through August 12.

HERE Performance Space's American Living Room Festival isn't going international, but continues to provide opportunities for emerging artists, especially directors, to develop their craft. Beginning July 8 and running through August 27, this staple of downtown arts is celebrating its 11th season.

Another hotbed for emerging talent turns up the heat even further in July. Dixon Place presents its annual Hot! festival of queer performance with such established performers as Reno, Marga Gomez, and Carmelita Tropicana sharing the month with talented newcomers Philip Kain, James Ferguson, and Gita Reddy, among others.

"Regie Cabico [Dixon Place literary curator] asked me to do a piece," says Reddy, who is making her solo performance debut on July 13. "I've seen shows at Dixon Place for years, so I was honored to be asked to do something. It's always seemed very friendly and welcoming to new artists and their work."

On the Radar

In addition to all the productions, festivals, and dueling Fringes, there are innumerable short-run shows registering on the radar. Lake Ivan Performance Group, for example, hosts an evening of unpredictable, unique, visionary theater at The Ontological Theater at St. Mark's Church (July 13 through 16), while the Asian-American performance ensemble Peeling the Banana debuts a new show at the Kraine (July 20 through 22). So if you're one of those people who thinks the theater season ends after the Tony's, think again. Summer is the perfect time to see what's hot.