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A Summer Full of Free Outdoor Shakespeare

TheaterMania looks at the many al fresco productions of the Bard's work in the New York metropolitan area. logo
Brian Richardson and Karim Sekou
in A Midsummer Night's Dream
(© Justyn Richardson)
Since the Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It closed last month at the Delacorte Theater -- and the Public Theater is following it up with Into the Woods -- one might think that a long summer stretches ahead with no prospect of free outdoor Shakespeare in New York City. Think again! There are a myriad of innovative al fresco - and completely gratis -- offerings of the Bard's work for summertime audiences across the New York metropolitan area.

One such production is Pulse Ensemble Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream, currently playing at the Amphitheater at Riverbank State Park, a verdant oasis extending into the Hudson River just off of 145th Street. With the gulls flying overhead and the water literally steps away, the Park makes for a very dramatic, but appropriate venue for Shakespeare's beloved comedy.

As might be expected, producing theater on the riverfront is not without its challenges: "The weather can be very grim, especially with the storms that come down that river," says Alexa Kelly, the group's artistic director. "So we always have to do extra-special bracing for the sets. The wind can wreak havoc," But, according to Kelly, the versatility of Shakespeare is ideally suited for such challenges: "You can do as much or as little in production terms as you want."

Kelly has set her production of Midsummer in the modern day, with two men in fierce David Bowie-esque club kid apparel playing Oberon and Titania, the faerie King and Queen. Theseus, the Duke of Athens on the eve of marrying her beloved Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, is distinctly reminiscent of Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council, who recently wed her partner Kim Catullo. Carpenter Peter Quince's acting troupe of "rude mechanicals" is composed of unemployed Occupy Wall Street protesters. "Our goal is to make it fun, not pretentious and not holy, says Kelly. "We're trying to show people who studied it in school and thought it was deadly that it can actually relate to real life."

Despite these modern extrapolations, Kelly's Midsummer is actually quite true to the original Shakespearean form, as it is presented without intermission and with 21st century groundlings wandering in and out of the theater. "There's always a group of people who drift in, but have no idea what it is we are doing and how long it will last," says Kelly. "I'm always trying to warn the actors that there's a lot of motion. People get fascinated by seeing the play from the railing up top and they come down to get a closer look. They weren't planning to see a show, so they stay for as long as their schedule permits. We always have a bigger crowd at the end than when we began."

Here are several other free outdoor Shakespeare offerings happening in the next two months.

Hamlet, 77th Street & Central Park West (through July 15)
The Boomerang Theatre Company plays Shakespeare's most vaunted tragedy, about a melancholic Danish prince hungry for revenge, on the lawn across the street from the New York Historical Society.

Macbeth, Suffolk County Community College (July 5-15)
The Long Island Shakespeare Festival offers up their take on the Bard's so-called Scottish Play about a murderous aristocrat and his ambitious wife.

The Merchant of Venice, Brookdale Community College (July 11-22)
New Jerseyans will have the opportunity to see The Summer Shakespeare Ensemble of Brookdale Community College present the Bard's thought-provoking examination of justice, debt, and anti-Semitism on the great lawn in front of the college's Larrison Hall.

Twelfth Night, Castle Clinton (through July 22)
New York Classical Theatre adapts the classic cross-dressing comedy to their unique style of active, audience-aware theater at Battery Park's Castle Clinton as part of the annual River to River Festival.

The Merry Wives of Windsor Towers, Municipal Parking Lot (July 12-28)
The always-innovative Shakespeare in the Parking Lot lends a distinctly local flair to The Merry Wives of Windsor, setting it at Windsor Towers, an imaginary condo development on the Lower East Side.

Twelfth Night, various Locations across New York City (July 14-22)
Black Henna's extremely well-traveled production of this popular play will appear at parks in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and The Bronx. Most performances are just one time, so be sure to catch it in your borough before it moves again!

Ali Ahn, David Cale, and William Jackson Harper
in Romeo and Juliet
(© Monica Simoes)
Romeo & Juliet, Pinkney Park, Rowayton (July 18-29)
Connecticut's Shakespeare on the Sound presents the great romantic tragedy as a play-within-a-play performed at a dinner party amongst eight friends.

Hamlet and Comedy of Errors, Various Locations in Queens (July 25 -August 18)
Hip Hop Theatre Company offers up the Comedy of Errors, an uproarious farce about twins separated at birth, in repertory with the famed tale of the moody Dane who thinks his father has been murdered.

Coriolanus, Municipal Parking Lot (August 2-18)
Shakespeare in the Parking Lot has reserved the sweaty month of August for this political thriller about class warfare between a plebeian mob and a dwindling circle of patricians and their war hero candidate for Roman Consul.

Richard III, Riverside Park (August 10-September 2)
As the dog days of glorious summer wear on, Hudson Warehouse serves up this classic tale of Machiavellian ambition on the North Patio of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument at 89th Street and Riverside Drive.

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