Shakespeare al fresco with Caribbean flair
Just as when Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Theatre brings its audience up close to the stage.
And as in the first staging of Antony and Cleopatra and Taming of the Shrew back in the 1600s, the actors join the audience between exits and entrances.
But that’s where the similarities to the Bard’s time end. Chesapeake Shakespeare’s “stage” is the picturesque gray stone “ruins” of the historic Patapsco Female Institute, just up the road from the Howard County government offices complex in Ellicott City.
And this company’s Antony and Cleopatra, playing in rotation with Taming of the Shrew through Aug. 4, is set not in ancient Rome and Egypt as in Shakespeare’s day, but thousands of miles away in the Caribbean.
A relaxed rendering
Director Ralph Alan Cohen explains that his unorthodox setting decision was prompted by an incident while he was relaxing on a beach in St. Martin. He happened to be reading Antony and Cleopatra in preparation for this show when a strolling musician came by, Cohen recalled, and called out “Hey, mon, want to buy my CD?”
“The laid-back approach, that’s something Antony would have enjoyed,” said Cohen, a co-founder and director of mission at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va. “And I began to think of other Caribbean influences that would work so well with this play.”
As a result, Cleopatra seduces in a lipstick red sundress, with her attending ladies in similar garb. Roman soldiers appear in khaki shorts and shirts, and Antony sports a white Panama-style chapeau.
The company traditionally includes one intermission and one “musical interlude” between acts when the audience is invited to join in the singing and dancing. During Antony and Cleopatra, the merriment is accompanied by Caribbean-flavored steel drums and guitars.
This relaxing-the-rules, “have fun with it” attitude permeates the production crew as well. Company members like Mindy Braden, 51, who has a day job as a medical assistance trainer for the state, spend evenings and weekends with the company. Braden has performed on stage, supervised wardrobe and this summer is taking on the role of stage manager.
“This is the best job in the world,” she declared. “We have young people — high school and college students — working with us, and the opportunities to interact with them and their ideas and concepts is fascinating.”
Taming of the Shrew will have a more traditional production and be directed by Ian Gallanar, the founding artistic director of the company.
Innovative, kid-friendly company
Established by a small group of artists in 2002, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has grown in size and professional reputation in the Baltimore-Washington area and nationally as well, holding membership in the Shakespeare Theater Association, the international organization for professional Shakespeare theaters.
The company’s mission statement notes that its members are committed to creating innovative performances and education programs that bring the works of Shakespeare and other classics to life. There are year-round programs that bring actors into the schools to perform and talk about Shakespeare and Elizabethan times.
Children are welcome at performances, and there are special activities just for the youngsters in the audience, as well as take-homes like coloring pages themed around the show. For Antony and Cleopatra, there’s one with Roman numerals and hieroglyphics. Youngsters are also invited to bring a sheet and learn to make their own toga.
Local Girl Scouts have put together and printed a coloring book featuring Maryland Women to be distributed at the July 4th celebration, incorporating both Cleopatra and Kate from Shrew in “A Salute to Independent Women.”
And if young theatergoers want to come early to any performance, there will be other activities starting 90 minutes before show time based on the show’s theme. This summer, it’s Caribbean limbo and races balancing a basket on one’s head.
As an extra incentive from June through August, children under 18 are admitted free with a ticketed adult. “We want to raise a new generation of lovers of culture and arts,” explained Jean Thompson, the theater’s communications manager.
A new winter home
The buzz this season is about the recently confirmed plans to open a theater for the company in downtown Baltimore, at 200 E. Redwood St., near the Inner Harbor.
Again it is a historic structure, the landmark 1885 Mercantile Trust and Deposit Company building. Plans call for a 250-seat “modern Globe” theater, plus other spaces for additional theater and arts events and festivals.
“It’s a very exciting time for us. This will be our first permanent winter location,” Thompson said. “We’ll also be part of a ‘theater triangle,’ within a short walk of the Hippodrome and the new Everyman Theatre.
“But opening a Baltimore theater doesn’t mean we’re abandoning Howard County,” she explained. “We’ll still be here for all the outdoor fun next summer.”
Because the summer outdoor theater is in a somewhat remote setting, Thompson suggests theatergoers be prepared for sudden showers, expect portable bathroom facilities, and a short walk (or van shuttle ride) up the hill from the parking lot.
Seating is on folding chairs that are provided, but those attending the performances may bring their own chairs or blankets, as well as a picnic.
The Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park is located at the end of Courthouse Drive in Ellicott City.
Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m. Tickets are $25 on Wednesdays, $29 on Thursdays, and $38 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Patrons 65 and over pay $29 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Tickets can be purchased at www.chesapeakeshakespeare.org or through the box office, (410) 313-8661.