Those no-good dirty scoundrels (now known as actors, but in Shakespeare’s time as players) would often steal word-for-word whole scenes of dialogue from a rival company’s show. Queen Elizabeth had no bureau for copyright affairs, so instead players were given their lines on little “roles,” or scrolls, soon before a play began. That meant no time for them to brush up their Shakespeare, little to no props, and being on their A-game. A player had to keep a good tongue in his head, or a battery of rotten produce and shouts would be hurled at him from the raucous audience. Each person in the cheaper seats spent about a penny a show – one whole day’s wages, so the play had to be good.
Since 2009, Portland’s Original Practice Shakespeare Festival has been staging the Bard in this traditional anarchic manner for free in parks throughout the city. This 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death has the team of actors bringing to life his celebrated words in 21 performances. Players are chosen shortly before the action begins, so each performance is unique and each interpretation of the role is unique. Original Practice Shakespeare wants you, the audience, to go back to “simpler times:” boo, laugh, mock, applaud. Take the attitude of Mr. Shakespeare’s words: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” Throw out all the decorum that your blue-haired grandma worked so diligently to foster in you.
Sunday’s staging of Shakespeare’s late play the Tempest was held, in great complement to the troupe, at Cathedral Park. In OPS tradition a prompter aids the players, and for this performance the role was filled by Andrew Bray. The prompter follows the script (in the case someone loses their lines), sound effects personnel, and stage directions on the fly. Elizabethan theaters didn’t employ costume designers: instead, the players wore the most expensive (their pocket books could buy) fashions of the time. Original Practice Shakespeare adds to the informality by inviting the audience to participate with a kaleidoscope of costumes. This performance’s Prospero, played by Michael Streeter, wore a faux Kapa Hawaiian shirt and a student-of-Montessori preschool wizard hat, but the fashion disaster only added to elevating his deliveries. He’s a shipwrecked magician on some island, after all.
The controversial literary figure of Caliban, as performed by Brian Burger, took the shape of a hunchbacked Neanderthal or half-shaved bear with a British isles accent. This Caliban isn’t a symbol of feminist debate or postcolonial theory: he looks like an ancient fish smells. While he schlepped and complained often with an indecent tongue about being a slave on his own island, Burger made a caricature that allowed the two actors who played the sprite Ariel and Trinculo the Jester to sift through the story and bring out the humor in what is usually performed as a serious play. Nikolas Hobak’s Ariel is a gothic angel: he’s got more naughty than nice, and can play the flute well. Joel Patrick Durham, who has lit up many a stage including his part in Bag&Baggage’s The Rope, looked like a psychedelic version of the Narrator from the musical Cabaret, but made a humorous and confused scapegoat.
One of the funniest scenes in this Tempest was between Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, and her love interest, Ferdinand. Miranda, played by Sarah Keyes Chang, was a dutiful Tinkerbell-looking maid. Upset that her father had forced her fiance Ferdinand (acted by Soren Gillaspy, who will be appearing on many of Portland’s Shakespeare stages this summer, including work with Portland Actors Ensemble and Salt and Sage) to gather firewood like the deformed and woeful Caliban, she begins a tug of war with a large piece of kindling wood. Within a few minutes, through a delicate dance, the kind offer from Miranda to help with work becomes a true metaphor for the physical desire that Ferdinand has for her.
Original Practice Shakespeare players have a great talent for improv, making the Bard’s words not just relevant, but also bringing out the best lighter qualities of the script. There’s no overthinking to muddy the waters. This allows the audience and cast to work together, and the words to stand, as they can, on their own.
Original Practice Shakespeare performs 13 plays in 11 Portland area parks through the summer, including the Laurelhurst Festival, which includes all 13 plays in a concentrated burst July 14-24 in Laurelhurst Park. This weekend, The Tempest repeats at 2 p.m. Saturday (July 9) in Irving Park and 6 p.m. Sunday in Beaverton’s Schiffler Park. Romeo and Juliet plays at 7 p.m. Friday (July 8) in Irving Park, and Hamlet at 7 p.m. Saturday, also in Irving Park. The complete schedule is here. Performances are free; donations are taken.