How to bring subtlety to performances of Shakespeare in the great outdoors? That’s a challenge faced every summer by footloose troupes like Seattle Shakespeare Company’s Wooden O.
Wooden O uses light amplification, but it’s still up to the actors to bring patrons sprawled on blankets and lawn chairs into the Bard’s richly articulated tales — without resorting to bombast.
Shakespeare, whose audience at the original Globe Theatre watched his plays standing up in an O-shaped, roofless venue open to the elements, shared such concerns.
In his advice to strolling players, Hamlet surely speaks for his author by commanding them to “not saw the air too much with your hand,” or “split the ears” with a “torrent” of passion.
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Yet delivering the text audibly and meaningfully in acoustically trying open spaces, and not resorting to roaring or arm-flinging, is an art in itself.
Wooden O makes a neat trick of it with “Two Gentleman of Verona.” An early, and minor, comedy in the canon, it’s basically much ado about little: the callow blade Proteus (Jason Marr) rudely dumps Julia (Angelica Duncan) to woo the hot tomato Silvia (Carolyn Marie Monroe), whom his bro Valentine (Conner Neddersen) loves. But naturally the bad boy raises everyone’s ire, and repents.
David Quicksall isn’t the first or 50th director to set a Shakespearean romp in the 1950s fantasy of “Happy Days” and “Grease,” or pump up the crowd with pop oldies.
But Wooden O does handle this well-worked gambit (peppered with “Jersey Shores” accents) with flair, especially musically. Cast members compose a human jukebox, delivering pleasing doo wop, a cappella renditions of tunes — for instance, the Coasters’ swaggering “Youngblood,” and (when Julia dons male garb) the Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man.”
There’s some sexy braggadocio from Neddersen and Marr, and Christopher Morson is a cutup as Valentine’s factotum, Speed, who with his master zips around Brando-style on an (imaginary) motorbike.
But to twist an old truism, outdoor comedy is easy and tragedy is hard.
Wooden O’s all-female “Julius Caesar” injects the action-packed saga of an ancient Roman coup d’état with much loud rabble-rousing and rumpus-making, sometimes exciting and other times earsplitting.
Unlike most other all-female takes on Bard classica, this one seems to have no gender agenda other than giving good actresses a crack at great parts usually played by men. Pronouns are not feminized in the text, and the leading players — Amy Thone as Cassius, Suzanne Bouchard as Brutus, Theresa Diekhans as Caesar, Terri Weagant as Marc Antony — look butched-up striding around in their unisex togs and short haircuts.
Cut to two hours, the show fairly rips along, but with a few stumbles. The Roman soothsayer (Tonya Andrews) sings and chants her lines with keening intensity, a distracting choice that turns a credible forecaster of doom into a shamanic lunatic.
And at first, Thone’s Cassius is such an aggressive hothead, it’s a wonder he lands on anyone’s assassination team. Thone has serious Shakespeare chops, and when she isn’t shouting, she gives us glimpses of the man’s inner turmoil.
The show doesn’t bore (rule No. 1, indoors or out), and Heather Hawkins, Kate Witt and others shine in smaller roles.
But what gives this “Julius Caesar” a compelling sense of the tragic is Bouchard’s quietly powerful turn. Her Brutus is indeed noble, with a steadfast thoughtfulness and conscience-driven qualms about murdering Caesar.
Bouchard speaks the verse with, as Shakespeare instructed, “a temperance that may give it smoothness.” Rarely raising her voice, she shows us the nuanced conflicts within a good man bent on eradicating tyranny — only to look on with horror, as chaos and civil war erupt in its place.
Misha Berson: email@example.com