Theater review

The weather was summertime Seattle at its most pleasant: warm but not hot, slightly breezy, sunny but not scorching. In other words, the perfect conditions to spread out a blanket or unfold some camp chairs in a grassy park, uncork a bottle of wine and take in some Shakespeare.

That was the way hundreds of local folks spent part of their weekend recently at Volunteer Park, during the Seattle Outdoor Theatre Festival. The annual festival kicked off a season of Shakespeare plays and other works that are being performed al fresco around the Puget Sound area in July and August, by larger drama companies (Wooden O, Greenstage, Book-It Repertory Theatre) and smaller outfits (Theater Schmeater, Last Leaf Productions, Dacha Theatre).

You can find live, mostly free (if you don’t count dropping a few bucks into the hats passed by the actors) and frequently diverting shows in open-air locations from Tacoma to Port Townsend to Mount Vernon.

Here’s a look at two of the offerings traveling to numerous locations this summer, with the peripatetic Wooden O troupe (a division of Seattle Shakespeare Company) and Greenstage, a Seattle ensemble that has been presenting the Bard of Avon’s classics since 1989.

Wooden O: “Twelfth Night”

Some time ago, Seattle Shakespeare Company invested in a mobile sound system for its Wooden O park outings. Though the microphone system for actors isn’t perfect (what one is?), it is a boon when you’re trying to hear Shakespearean dialogue over the buzz of airplanes, the cawing of crows and other sonic distractions in an urban setting like Volunteer Park.

That clarity is much appreciated, given the delights of the choice verbal jests in “Twelfth Night,” an upstairs-downstairs romantic comedy that has gained increasing popularity on modern stages in recent decades. (Shakespeare Northwest is also producing it this summer, at Rexville-Blackrock Amphitheatre in Mount Vernon.)

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As in his “As You Like It,” Shakespeare constructed a nifty gender switcheroo for “Twelfth Night.” After twin siblings Sebastian and Viola are separated at sea during a shipwreck, Viola adopts male attire in order to survive in the unfamiliar land of Illyria, becoming a dashing messenger boy named Cesario. Deployed by her lovesick boss Duke Orsino, she’s an agent in Orsino’s frustrated attempts to woo an indifferent noblewoman, Olivia — who, naturally, falls for Cesario, not realizing that he/she is in boy drag. Got that?

The gender fluidity is compounded by Wooden O in Mary Machala’s lively outdoor mounting of the play. This version harks back to Shakespeare’s day, when all the roles were played by men — not as an aesthetic or political statement, but because misogynistic, puritanical law barred women from appearing on the stage.

Brandon J. Simmons as Olivia, Jason Marr as Orsino, and Michael Monicatti as Viola in Wooden O’s “Twelfth Night.” (HMMM Productions)
Brandon J. Simmons as Olivia, Jason Marr as Orsino, and Michael Monicatti as Viola in Wooden O’s “Twelfth Night.” (HMMM Productions)

A few years ago, a beguiling, men-only “Twelfth Night” with the brilliant Mark Rylance as Olivia was a London and Broadway sensation. It was highly stylized, and more what you imagined an Elizabethan production might be: with Olivia as white-faced, bewigged and upholstered as Queen Elizabeth I herself, and a young man endowed (with what were then perceived as) “feminine” features portraying Viola/Cesario.

In Wooden O’s hands, however, the double-gender-bender approach is not a historical deconstruction; it’s part of an increasingly familiar trend. The company’s other current park show this year is an all-female (and nonbinary) “Romeo and Juliet.” And most Shakespeare productions this critic has seen in the past year have been heavily gender bent, in one way or another. So is this gambit a revelation? A fad? Or is it becoming a cliché?

This “Twelfth Night” gains some extra laughs from the casting — like the jolt when Brandon J. Simmons’s petulant, black-gowned Olivia suddenly breaks out a deep, manly shout. And when Michael Monicatti as Viola/Cesario bluffs his way through a duel against the equally inept doofus Sir Anthony Aguecheek (Benjamin McFadden), ripping apart any notion that men are inherently good at physical combat.

This “Twelfth Night” is frisky, well-spoken and enjoyable. But otherwise, there’s little surprising or illuminating about the approach. And the two standout performances just happen to come from guys playing guys. Chad Kelderman is deliciously ridiculous as Olivia’s pompous major-domo Malvolio, and Eric Ray Anderson gleefully cavorts as the sly party dog Sir Toby Belch. There was a lot more to explore in Sir Toby’s relationship with the relative he’s leeching off (Olivia) and the rich idiot he’s trying to scam (Sir Andrew), but we’ll have to leave that to another “Twelfth Night.”

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Greenstage: “Measure for Measure”

Greenstage is presenting “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Henry IV, Part 2” in the parks this go-round. But the company is also afoot with its Backyard Bard program, a series of shorter Shakespeare abridgments, each one condensed into an hour and sporting a very busy cast of four.

With scant scenery and simple costumes, these classical snacks provide a fast-moving intro to the plays. And they’re so portable, the two 2019 mini-productions (“Measure for Measure” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor”) can more easily tour to smaller parks including Ravenna’s Cowen Park and High Point Commons Park in West Seattle.

The 2019 cast for Greenstage’s Backyard Bard productions of  “Measure for Measure” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” include, left to right: Havilah Criss, Jessica Severance, Benjamin Nickols and Bryce Publow.  (Ken Holmes)
The 2019 cast for Greenstage’s Backyard Bard productions of “Measure for Measure” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” include, left to right: Havilah Criss, Jessica Severance, Benjamin Nickols and Bryce Publow. (Ken Holmes)

“Measure for Measure” is tough to pull off in this context. Deemed one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” because of its unsettling blend of bawdy comedy and dead-serious drama, the plot is split between the shenanigans of Venetian libertines, and a “me too” dilemma. With the latter, the pious young nun-in-training, Isabella (Havilah Criss), is threatened with blackmail by the powerful official Angelo (Bryce Publow), who lusts to deflower her virginity in exchange for staying her brother’s execution.

Then there’s the town’s absent Duke (Benjamin Nickols), a more righteous ruler who lurks in disguise before intervening in this attempted rape — at the very last possible moment.

This is a play that cannily questions conventional morality, positing it as a front for sexist hypocrisy. Conveying all this in double-time, director Erin Day and an uneven quartet of actors sacrifice much of the tale’s nuance and tension. But there are some funny bits with a wooden (yes, made of wood) stand-in for one of the characters, and Nickols steals the show with his assured presence in several roles.

If you go:

Wooden O’s “Twelfth Night” and “Romeo and Juliet” run through Aug. 11 at various Puget Sound-area parks. See seattleshakespeare.org/woodeno for details.

Greenstage’s “Henry IV, Part 2” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” as well as its Backyard Bard productions of “Measure for Measure” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” run through Aug. 17 at various Puget Sound-area parks. See greenstage.org for details.

Also check out shows by other troupes in the Puget Sound area, including:

Outdoor theater tips:

  • Find out about parking and public transit beforehand, on the theater company’s website.
  • Bring camp chairs if you wish, but the shorter the better so you won’t obscure your neighbor’s sight lines.
  • Pack a picnic, or find out whether there is food available for sale on-site or nearby and if alcohol is allowed on the premises.
  • Depending on the location, pets may be allowed. But if you bring your dog, make sure he/she is a good audience member: no barking, no running around and upstaging the performers.
  • Theater companies that perform for free have a lot of expenses. Please consider helping them out with a donation, by cash or check.