The Stage: Riverside Theatre in the Park returns to its outdoor festival stage

Theatre in the park
Riverside Theatre in the Park’s 2014 season presents Othello (pictured) and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised]. The outdoor play festival opens June 20. — photo by Miriam Alarcon Avila

Riverside Theatre in the Park (RTP) is making a triumphant return to its outdoor festival stage after last year’s flooding forced productions to move to West High School.

The festival runs June 20 through July 13 at Riverside Festival Stage in Lower City Park and will alternate between two productions: Shakespeare’s drama, Othello, and the comedy, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised], by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield.

When RTP first began offering non-Shakespeare plays three years ago, they selected works by other classic authors: Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! in 2011 and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal in 2013.

With its contemporary, irreverent humor, Complete Works breaks the mold. Written in 1987 by members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the play features three actors as they attempt to perform all of Shakespeare’s plays in one performance (or at least the gist of them). Since its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it has become a favorite of regional theatres everywhere.

Complete Works costume designer, Jenny Nutting Kelchen, describes the play as “pretty nuts.”

“It’s one of those tiny shows with three actors — but a cast of thousands!” Kelchen said.

As part of her work on the production, she has to look through Riverside’s existing costume stock and other sources to find individual items, like wigs and “bad Elizabethan hats,” that can help the audience easily identify each iconic character.

According to Ron Clark, a Riverside Theatre founder and the director of Complete Works, there were multiple reasons for presenting a ‘revised’ version of the play.

“I saw it in 1996 in London at the Criterion and fell in love with it,” Clark explained. “But it rose in popularity so quickly that we didn’t want to be in line with everyone else.”

Clark thought that the new, revised version would attract a younger audience to the festival.

“If you look at clips of the original on YouTube and compare it to what we are bringing, there are major differences — the humor is updated, it is more topical and there are cell phones!” Clark explained.

While the RTP organizers hope that Complete Works will bring in new audiences, they also picked it with the hope that it would bring in the same audiences. During the flooding in May 2013, Riverside staff decided to move the festival to an indoor location at West High School Auditorium. Though the indoor space lacked the threat of gnat swarms and high temperatures, it did not have the magic of an outdoor performance space.

“We took a huge hit,” Clark said. “About 40 percent of our audience projections didn’t show up.”

It’s their hope that a bold comedy in conjunction with a classic Shakespeare play might bring people back to the festival at the same level as previous years.

This season marks the first time Othello has been staged at RTP. Set in Venice, the play centers on Othello, a “Moorish” military general who succumbs to jealousy when ensign Iago concocts a plot to make it appear that Othello’s wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful.

“It is not like any of Shakespeare’s tragedies,” said director Theodore Swetz, who is back for his fifth season with RTP. “It stands alone in its personal evil and psychological power, and this fascinates me.”

Race plays a significant role in the tensions inherent to the play. The term “Moor” is ambiguous — in Shakespeare’s time, it could have meant anything from “African” to “Arab” to “swarthy.” The racial aspects of the play can be uncomfortable for modern audiences, and contemporary productions have tackled the issue in a variety of ways. One production even cast Patrick Stewart as Othello amongst an all-black cast.

Swetz, who played Shylock in Riverside’s 2012 production of The Merchant of Venice, does not believe that a theatre should avoid the more problematic elements of classic plays.

“What makes [the play] relevant, and indeed important to produce, is to shed a light on a part of us that is ugly as humanity and not to shy away from doing so,” explained Swetz. “A relevant theater should always place the burden on the spectator so that they must think something through and determine what their truth is.”

In Othello, one of the truths the audience confronts is the power of jealousy, a quality the play is well-known for due to its coining of the phrase “green-eyed monster.” For Kelly Gibson, who is returning to the festival stage to play Desdemona, part of her truth is about embracing the softer part of her personality in order to better express her character.

“I love that I can play Desdemona from my romantic self and the part of me who dreams of what it would be like to be a princess,” said Gibson. “I wish we all lived a little bit more from our romantic selves, and I find her actions unwaveringly humbling and admirable.”

Tim Budd will be performing the role of antagonist Iago, a character he has always wanted to play. Though Iago is one of the most infamous villains in English literature, Budd is not daunted by the idea of playing such an iconic character.

“I think most people’s concept of Iago lies in terms of his wickedness, but not really in terms of him as a character, “said Budd. “They don’t consider him as a man or have any clear image of him in their head, whereas they might have a strong image of, say, a Romeo or a Hamlet. That allows me some creative room to breathe.”

Othello is Budd’s 50th production at Riverside, a monumental achievement for a regional theatre actor. Budd cites many reasons for why he has continued to perform at Riverside through the decades: The small space allows for connections to form between the actors and the audience, and Clark, along with artistic director Jody Hovland, plan Riverside’s seasons to include a variety of challenging plays. Budd also finds the environment of the theatre to be collaborative, allowing actors to grow as artists.

“It just doesn’t get any better than that, does it?” remarked Budd. “For an actor to be able to say they’ve done 50 shows with the same theatre — that is so rare, and only because Riverside has provided me, and many others, with that kind of artistic home.”

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