By CHRISTOPHER GONZALEZ
When our loved ones ask us, “Why, dear – why do you want to spend three hours of our evening watching, perhaps for the fifteenth time, yet another Shakespeare production?” we ought not to suggest that we go simply because … it’s good for us. Original Practice Shakespeare Festival provides us with a fresh and infallible argument: “Well, honey dearest, this is our chance to see Shakespeare the way he would’ve seen it.”
It’s odd to think that Portland’s Original Practice Shakespeare is one of only two companies this side of the Mississippi performing Shakespeare as it was originally performed — at least, in certain ways. That is to say, without the convention of rehearsals, directors, memorized lines, and most strikingly, without pretense. (In other ways, performances are decidedly not Elizabethan. Many of the actors are women, for instance. In Shakespeare’s time women were not allowed on the stage; boys played the women’s roles.)
Actors in OPS shows are given their “roles” (literally: their lines are printed out on rolls of paper they hold in hand) the day of the performance. In theory, they are not supposed to have looked at the text before the show. Naturally, most of them know general character arcs and the gist of each show, but the actors are also trained in the meticulous practice of interpreting hidden direction in the holiest of the holy Shakespearean texts: the First Folio. As Jennifer Lanier, co-artistic director of OPS, says, “The First Folio is where the badassery really lives.”
The First Folio is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. In theory, actors can learn to read it as a jazz musician might read a score. Capitalizations, punctuation, line breaks, and metrical inconsistencies provide the actor with opportunities for play and characterization. For example, a colon in the middle of a line signals the actor to speed through the rest of the line with urgency. In theory, it is this live interpretation that brings immediacy to the text and makes for an authentic and spontaneous journey of discovery. Original Practice Shakespeare revitalizes plays that, some would say, simply need be laid to rest.
In practice, Original Practice is just plain old fun. It is presented much like a sporting event, with an on-stage prompter (another vestige from Elizabethan drama) who wears a referee’s shirt and feeds actors lines when they lose their place. The prompter may suddenly blow a whistle in the middle of a scene and ask, of Juliet for example, “So really; what do you even see in this guy?” Actors are allowed to ad lib and improvise, which the OPS ensembles tend to do with taste and precision. The referees also help the young audiences track the intricacies of the plot by encouraging the kiddos to boo at the bad guys or hooray for the heroes and heroines.
Original Practice Shakespeare’s impressive summer tour through August 25 encompasses almost thirty performances, in twelve different parks, of seventeen different plays (some of them in Original Spelling, too: A Midsommer Night’s Dreame, Much Adoe About Nothing, Comedie of Errors, Twelfe Night). This weekend’s busy schedule, for instance, brings The Tempest to Willamette Park on Friday the 13th of July; Macbeth to Laurelhurst Park on Saturday; and The Taming of the Shrew (afternoon) and Two Gentlemen of Verona (evening) to Irving Park on Sunday.
One of the tour’s most meaningful aspects is the service the company provides for young audiences and underserved communities. “We want to go into the parks and neighborhoods that aren’t getting a lot of stuff this summer. That’s where we want to go,” Lanier says with a smile.
OPSFest is an opportunity to see Shakespeare in your backyard or in your community where theater companies don’t usually bring their work — to have timeless stories within reach, literally.
OPS also models a “say yes” philosophy for young audiences who may be daunted by Shakespeare, or by performance in general. A certain confidence amidst chaos is communicated when professional actors are seen integrating and responding to an unexpected cameo from an unleashed dog, a heckle from an audience member, or a dropped line. As Lanier says, “Right now we need these kinds of instructive healing stories, and to be able to tell them in such a way that lets (audiences) know it’s going to be okay. It doesn’t matter what gets thrown at us, we will get through this story.”
Original Practice Shakespeare may seem to be making a promise that you will be seeing something of a relic, a form of Elizabethan presentation lost in time. And yes, in certain ways that’s true. But what the company delivers feels much less academic or heady than that description suggests. It’s mainly a cheerful evening out with your family, your loved ones, and your dog. A place where, with the sun setting through the trees, you can be simultaneously at a hockey game and in the hallowed catacombs of the Capulets.