And in the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie,
Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet,
There my Lysander and myself shall meet
— Hermia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.1
Walking into the Armory Theatre last night, home of Portland Center Stage, everything except for the play was unknown. I had not yet seen an Anonymous Theatre Company production, which in earlier years was by special invite. A regular fixture in the Portland theatre calendar, their one-night-a-year productions advertise only the director(s) and the play title, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The cast isn’t known to us, or even to one another. Last night, the night of the show, was the first they saw the stage, said these words in public, formed these relationships within the world of the play. The actors were come in amongst us, having taken their seats in the audience to wait out their cue—one even so long as act five. In a play about unexpected transformations, the added level of secrecy and coordinated reveals left me wondering to what extent I rely on the affect of surprise to buoy me through a theatrical experience.
The Independent Shakespeare Company‘s Titus Andronicus has got me thinking about why Shakespeare in the Park initiatives stage tragedies as part of their free seasons. What is the role of tragedy in such a context? You have a coupe options to choose from this summer in the LA area. While Indy Shakes is staging Titus in rep with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you can also see either The Merry Wives of Windsor or The Winter’s Tale being put up by Shakespeare by the Sea. There are in fact a huge range of free Shakespeare opportunities across southern California to compete with the more formal venues like The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ Romeo & Juliet and Henry IV (you know, the one with Tom Hanks) as well as The Old Globe—which looks to have no Shakespeare on its calendar until mid-August and then nothing through next June. All of those running more than one show has at least one of joy and one of discomfort. Indy Shakes even made a point of it in the program and swag, where you could get branding with the silhouette of a donkey’s head or a skull.
This is not unique to California. In the sampling of free Shakespeare I’ve had the opportunity to see, this seems to be an industry norm for the non-profits. I confess I am a bit of an addict, and have a habit of tracking down the local community Shakespeare when I’m in town for work, research, or a conference. I’m interested in what the public exposure is to Shakespeare, as most folks don’t want to pay the exorbitant ticket prices for the high-production stuff—if they even seek out theatre or Shakespeare at all. There were nearly two hundred folks at this opening, of all ages with the exception of kids under fifteen due to the content, kitted-out just at the Hollywood Bowl with picnics and wine bottles. But attention quickly waned, a huge number of cellphones appeared, and the young woman sitting next to me down-right curled up and fell asleep. So why tragedy in the park?