I saw something amazing this past Friday.
I was sitting on a blanket in the grass of a park in Providence. I should qualify this statement a little. Even though this place is on the books as a National Park (it has Park Rangers and everything), it’s really just a slip of green cut between two bustling streets. Right on the Providence River there is a road. Right on that road there is a triangle of grass and trees which constitutes Roger Williams National Park. Inside this park is a stretch of pavement and a few picnic benches which set the stage for the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Henry VIII.
The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre has been on a sabbatical from the Shakespeare scene for twenty years. Director Bob Colonna began TRIST performing on barges in the Providence harbor and has since graduated to this tiny strip of paradise (after aforementioned break from all things Bardy).
The production was billed to me as what amounted to community-theatre-Shakespeare. It was done with non-professional actors (a great deal of them college students) in makeshift costumes using clip lights gaffed to telescoping camera stands and a light board jury-rigged inside a wine box. The audience sat on blankets in the grass or metal folding chairs and were cautioned to sit close to the actors as there was no sound system and frequent interruptions were provided by modern traffic from the streets on either side of this thin little strip.
I am a snob. I will be the first to admit it. I was not expecting much.
But wowy zowy did this production deliver.
It wasn’t stellar subject matter. Henry VIII is a cantankerous, contentious, contemptuous piece, most suspect not even written by Shakespeare himself (and frankly I personally fall into this camp). The verse is stilted and fumbling, the plot structure is like a movie trailer of Shakespeare’s canon (stealing famous bits from other plays and mish-moshing them together to create something “new”). To top it off, I am always wary when I see actors wearing "costumes" pulled from their personal closets.
But sitting there, watching this simple, breathless production, I couldn’t help but be amazed at what was before me. Here, under Colonna’s guidance, was a troop of individuals with nominal training spouting verse like pros (pun thoroughly intended). The simplicity of the delivery punctuated the actuality of each moment. The words weren’t bogged down by ACTING or some high-brow attempt to make this reality, this was simply real. Henry himself was commanding and rotund, the Cardinal was thoroughly menacing, Katherine of Aragon was sufficiently regal to carry through her moments of adolescent petulance, and (most importantly) I didn’t look at my watch once throughout the entire production. Music provided by the multi-talented cast wafted in and out of this gleeful romp (didn’t think you’d ever hear Henry VIII referred to as a “gleeful romp”, did you?) setting appropriate tones for the unfolding drama. When the show was cheesy, it was delightfully self-aware. When it was dramatic, it was breathtakingly natural. The stakes continually rose and fell along with the zodiac of the country as travesty and joy befell the princely affairs played before us.
In short, I was mesmerized. Why isn’t more Shakespeare like this? This production, a simple affair echoing its forefathers with groundlings on their blankets in the grass and more prudish types on un-cushioned chairs behind, is (to me) the essence of Shakespeare. There I was with just the language and the actors, and no pretense between. It was as though I could reach out and touch the Bard himself, as though his world had become part of my world, and that, my friends, is good theatre. On the grass, under the stars, wrapped in a blanket to stave off the unseasonable chill, I was seeing something which gave me hope for any person who says “I can’t understand Shakespeare”. This free evening of entertainment, held in a public place, is not only monetarily and physically accessible to everyone, it is also intellectually accessible. Clear as a tumbler of good vodka, precise as an actor who has been forced to bartend to make ends meet cashing out at the end of the night, and all this from a group of unpaid non-professionals.
Which to me begs the question: how did we allow our Shakespeare to become so bogged down with snobbery and congested with befuddling intellectualism that we lost touch of this? Why is it that a big-budget production (which many consider too high-brow to even attend) is the first thing which comes to the minds of most Americans when they think of our dear old bard? And why is it that I cringe at the mere thought of unschooled amateurs mouthing the words of Dear William when I will happily gobble up any High School Musical that crosses my path?
I refuse to believe that I am the only one. Somewhere along the way, Shakespeare grew too good for free evenings of entertainment in public parks. He grew too godly for laymen. He was no longer fuel for mechanicals, but rather was reserved as a feast for Kings.
Perhaps it is time for some re-examination. As the internet is revolutionizing television by provided cheap and freely available alternatives, so should productions like this revolutionize and challenge live theatre. If the amateurs continue to cook up quality, the pros are going to have to reach to compensate. And I can only hope that they do. A community rooted in creativity cannot afford to rest upon laurels, it must constantly reach, strive, and adjust. It must challenge itself or die. And everyone (theatre person or not) can afford to take a page out of Bob Colonna’s book: re-discover, re-invent and above all KEEP IT SIMPLE.
If you would like to catch Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre's Henry VIII (and you should), visit this page for more information. You can also find them on facebook here.