Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) is offering two productions this summer — Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream — that can be enjoyed at city parks and other such areas in Northern Kentucky and around Hamilton County. I headed to East Price Hill on July 28 for the opening night of Hamlet at Mount Echo Park, one of the many great facilities maintained by the city of Cincinnati’s Parks Department.
It was a steamy, sultry evening, but that didn’t diminish the enthusiasm of the crowd or the actors warming up on the playing court in front of the park’s pavilion when I arrived. CSC’s productions are designed to be flexibly presented (they will eventually tour area schools), but the pavilion at Mount Echo, with its colonnade of columns and arches, was perfectly suggestive of a castle in dank Denmark. The view from the park (it looks east, upstream over the Ohio River and toward the western edge of downtown Cincinnati) is spectacular, and I spent a few minutes appreciating the natural beauty of the scenery before I settled down on the sloping grass in front of the stage. The aromas of fried chicken and pizza made the sensory experience even better, as did the actors loosening up and running through bits of action — including some simulated swordplay.
The six actors performing Hamlet were preparing in full view of the audience, doing vocal and physical exercises to ready themselves for the production, reduced to roughly two hours (Hamlet at its full length can be four hours long).
As the audience picnicked and waited for the 7 p.m. commencement of activities (no curtain to be raised, of course), the skies darkened, but the show went on. Director Chris Guthrie, a CSC veteran of nine seasons, has distilled Hamlet’s script to a quickly paced, emotionally gripping work with a few tweaks for this particular set of performers. Miranda McGee portrays the stuffy Lord Chamberlain full of foolish platitudes, Polonius, as mother rather than father of hot-headed Laertes (Cary Davenport) and sensitive Ophelia (Lauren Shiveley). Likewise, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Jolin Polasek and Shively, in one of her doubled roles), Hamlet’s foolish college chums, have become preening, posing sorority girls.
Subtlety would not serve a production performed in the open air (nor one that must eventually grab the attention of high school students), so Hamlet, his vain manipulative uncle Claudius (John Scheller, who doubled as the ghost of Hamlet’s father) and his weak-willed mother Gerturde (Polasek’s principal role) are drawn in simple, elemental colors — their emotions are strong and singular, so their motives are easy to follow.
One of the most thrilling aspects of these brashly mounted productions is that they are colored by the evening’s setting and the atmosphere. Forty minutes into the performance (Act II, Scene 2, to be precise), before the moment for a promised intermission and as Hamlet described “this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,” the heaven’s opened and a downpour with thunder and lightning cut things short.
It was disappointing not to see the whole piece, but there was a kind of beauty in the playing of Hamlet’s turbulent emotions with a roiling sky and rumbling thunder. It made for a unique evening that could never have happened in a theater.
SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK continues through the month of August in Eden, Alms and Lytle parks in Cincinnati; Veterans Park in Hamilton; McDonald Commons Park in Madeira; Boone Woods Park in Burlington; and Presidents Park in Edgewood. Get the full schedule at www.cincyshakes.com.