Don’t let Labor Day fool you. Summer is
not over yet. And to prove it, the Shakespeare Project is presenting
its first annual "Play Outside! Festival of Free Outdoor
Theater" from Sept. 4 through Sept. 26.
The festival headliner is Phillippe Petit, who achieved worldwide fame for his high wire walk between the World Trade Center towers 30 years ago. Petit will perform his unique brand of street theater - juggling, sleight of hand and improvisation - as his street persona, the wild, witty and silent Lippo.
Other performers include the feminist Airmid Theater Company; the Drilling Company, with its own version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona"; Circus Amok, with its "Back to School" show that explores Mayor Bloomberg’s educational reforms; Messenger Theater Company’s first foray into children’s theater, "The Adventures of Baba Yaga: Little Girl Stew"; A Pack of Idiots presenting Christopher Durang’s classic "The Actor’s Nightmare," and his lesser known "Medea"; and American Theatre of Harlem’s "Hal the Wit," an ensemble of teaching artists who will introduce children and adults to interactive stories of triumph and survival.
Scott Cargle is director of the Shakespeare Project, a company that tours the city with one play each summer. This year’s festival came out of his company’s desire to "take the summer off and not actually produce anything and work on projects of our own," Cargle told GO Brooklyn.
In the past the company has produced "Romeo and Juliet" (their inaugural show), "Othello," and "Venus and Adonis," one of Shakespeare’s long poems. One objective of their program is reaching out to lower- and middle-income communities.
"We still believe in reaching out to these communities," said Cargle, "but we thought we’d do other people’s shows this year."
There was also a practical side to the decision.
"Many people don’t have money to rent a theater, but it only costs $25 to get a park permit for four shows," he explained.
One of Cargle’s favorite venues is Sunset Park, because it is so heavily used.
"There are lots of people in the park and you always get huge crowds. Most of the people are Mexican immigrants who don’t speak English. When they don’t understand, they ask their children to explain," he said. "Many of these people have never been to the theater before. It’s not a tradition in small towns in Mexico."
Cargle said that once he put out the word a host of companies responded.
"I tried to find a real diverse and eclectic group of artists," he said. "I wanted visual companies that used puppets, movement and masks. We don’t use amplification, so it’s important to keep the performances visually interesting."
The program includes shows for both children and adults.
Messenger Theatre Company’s "The Adventures of Baba Yaga: Little Girl Stew" is a contemporary retelling of a Russian folktale about an old lady who flies around in a mortar and pestle and lives in a house that walks around on chicken legs.
"Swetnam the Woman-Hater" will be presented by Airmid Theatre Company, which was founded by Tricia McDermott in 2000 to produce classic work by women playwrights and also to provide work to women playwrights, designers and directors.
"Theater is about social change," McDermott told GO Brooklyn. "For women to survive economically they have to have a place to work."
But Airmid Theater Company is also all about women’s perspective.
"’Swetnam the Woman-Hater’ is a proto-feminist play," said McDermott. "We feel it was written by a group of women because of inconsistencies in the writing. It’s a Jacobean-style comedy based on a true story."
First produced in 1619, at the Red Bull Theatre in London, the play was written as a response to master swordsman Joseph Swetnam’s pamphlet, "The arraignment of lewde, idle, forward and unconstant Women." It is about a pair of star-crossed lovers, a possessive king, an Amazon queen, and the place of women in society and the legal system.
"We chose this play because of its physicality. We thought it could stand up to an outdoor setting," said McDermott. "There are disguises, sword-fighting and lots of comedy."
Circus Amok, as its name suggests, is for children of all ages. But it also has its serious side.
"It’s political. It has queer sensibility. It’s hopeful. It’s exuberant," said director Jennifer Miller, also known as the Bearded Lady. Circus Amok combines traditional acts such as acrobatics, stilt-walking and juggling with entertainment not necessarily associated with the big top - big puppets, dance, storytelling.
This year, the company, which rehearses in Park Slope and Bushwick, has switched its usual schedule of free summer outdoor performances from June to September to be under the umbrella of the Shakespeare Project’s festival. But Miller assures her public that the circus will keep the same political flavor it has maintained for 15 years (10 of those years outdoors).
"We will be talking about education. We will be talking about the election and we will be talking about the war," she said.
But for the child in all of us there will still be rope-walking, stilt-dancing, a mini-trampoline, a six-piece brass band and juggling. Only, in Circus Amok style, the juggling will be performed in drag by a group called The Liberty Sisters.
The Shakespeare Project’s "Play Outside! Festival of Free Outdoor Theater" runs Sept. 4 through Sept. 26. Artists or companies that will perform in Brooklyn’s parks include: Phillippe Petit, Airmid Theater Company, Drilling Company, Circus Amok, Messenger Theater Company, A Pack of Idiots and American Theatre of Harlem. For a complete schedule of Brooklyn performance dates, times and locations, call (212) 479-7800 or visit www.playoutside.org.