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Shakespeare in the Park -- on Long Island

A look at the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival and its "extreme" interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew.

J. Richey Nash and Alice Vienneau in Taming of the Shrew: Extreme
For most residents of the Big Apple, the phrase "Shakespeare in the Park" conjures up specific images of evenings spent at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, watching one of the Bard's works as presented by the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. But, needless to say, there are lots of parks in New York other than the one bordered by 59th Street, 110th Street, Fifth Avenue, and CPW in Manhattan.

"This is our eighth season," says David Brandenburg, artistic director of the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival. "We can't decide if it seems like just yesterday or eons ago that we started. It's been quite an amazing journey and we've come a long way." And how has the weather been treating the company so far during its stint this summer at Theodore Roosevelt County Park in Montauk? "We've been pretty lucky," says Brandenburg. "We got in a great performance last night and then it rained about half an hour after we were done. You know, that's part of the deal with outdoor theater: It will either be the most beautiful thing you've ever seen or you can have a mess."

A mixed company of Equity and non-Equity performers, the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival started in 1996. "My family has had a house in Amagansett for 30 years," explains Brandenburg, "and I started the company with my cousin who has since moved on to other things. At the time, we were both at kind of a transitional point in our careers. We were just talking one night about what we were going to do and we thought, 'Let's start a theater company down on the east end.' The name Hamptons Shakespeare Festival came to mind in a flash. The first thing we did was to find out if anyone was already doing Shakespeare in the park in the Hamptons. To our astonishment, no one was. That was February '96 and we got the first production up in August. It all happened very fast."

Oddly enough for the artistic director of a theater company devoted to Shakespeare, Brandenburg's background is in music. "I'm primarily a composer, but I've always been involved with theater; I did my share of acting along the way but I gave that up, and I've also done some lighting design. For our shows, I write all of the incidental music and the music for whatever songs and dances are in the plays. That been very fulfilling, and I've been able to balance it with running the company."

The company's current show is The Taming of the Shrew -- or, as it has been retitled for this production, Taming of the Shrew: Extreme. As Brandenburg explains it, "We cut the so-called induction scene and replaced it with new material," an opening sequence that cleverly spoofs those ridiculous American Gladiator-type "reality" TV shows. "Then we did do some cutting for time. Also, because of the small number of actors, we combined a couple of servant roles into one servant. But we've retained the storyline pretty faithfully." The six-member cast of Shrew is unusually small for the festival; "We've been averaging 10 to 12 actors in each show over the past few years," Brandenburg says.

In Taming of the Shrew: Extreme, Petruchio and Kate are played by J. Richey Nash and Alice Vienneau, who fought another famous Shakespearean battle of the sexes as Beatrice and Benedick in the festival's production of Much Ado About Nothing a few seasons back. These two exhibit so much on-stage chemistry that one might assume they're partnered in real life, but this is not the case. "They're not married or romantically involved off stage," says David Brandenburg. "They have sort of -- I don't want to call it a love/hate relationship, because that's probably exaggerating it. But they both have strong personalities and they're excellent actors. They love playing opposite each other and they work well together. Craig George, who directed this production, also directed Much Ado, and they enjoy working with him.

David Paluck as Puck in the 1997
Hamptons Shakespeare Festival production
of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Photo: René Auberjonois)
"We don't have a resident company per se," Brandenburg adds, "but we have a loosely-knit group of people that we like to work with. Typically, we have about 50 percent returning actors and 50 percent new each year. When we have productions with larger casts, we'll generally have one or two local people. A lot of professional actors have settled out here, so there's a community to draw on." The company presents only one show each summer but also offers a number of special programs and events, including "Camp Shakespeare" theater workshops for kids, a reading series dedicated to new plays, and "Meet the Artists" discussions.

Performing al fresco has its disadvantages -- rain, bugs, etc. -- but also its pluses. "We time our performances so that the first 45 minutes or so of the show is going to be in daylight," says Brandenburg. "That allows us to use as much as we want of the surrounding park. It all depends on the play and the concept, but the park is such an amazing space that we try to use it as much as possible. Sometimes, we'll even use distant areas of the park after the sun goes down; if we light trees off in the distance, it gives real depth to the visuals."

What has been the audience reaction to the "extreme" interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare's most popular plays? According to Brandenburg, "We've been getting mostly positive responses. It's certainly a bold choice. I think the concept really adds to the show, rather than taking away from it. You know, we're not trying to supplant Shakespeare. We've just put the play in a context that's really entertaining in its references to contemporary pop culture. The play itself is ultra-theatrical, so it lends itself to that sort of thing; that's why we have Kiss Me, Kate and all these other adaptations."

Taming of the Shrew: Extreme has been playing in Montauk since July 23 and continues there through August 15 before moving to Southampton's Agawam Park for performances August 2-24. The festival has been limited to those two sites over the past several years, but that may be changing. "We've got a lot of interest from other communities to do a touring production at some point, so that's on the drawing board. We're also thinking about possibly bringing Taming of the Shrew into the city as a showcase for the actors. That could potentially happen in September, but it's nothing that we're announcing yet."

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