Outdoor theaters and tavern courtyards were common staging areas for acting companies in William Shakespeare’s time, and performers routinely adapted to varied surroundings. Sets were consequently simple; actors trusted Shakespeare’s magnificent verse and audience imagination to establish palaces, foreign lands and other exotic settings.
That ready-to-roll ethos typifies Shakespeare By the Sea, a nonprofit repertory company presenting Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” in South Pasadena’s Garfield Park on Thursday, July 19. (The company will return on Aug. 2 with “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”) Founded in 1998 and associated with beach communities, SBTS stages pop-up productions in summer across LA, Orange and Ventura counties. Garfield Park is calendared between an open-air performance in Rowland Heights the previous evening, and another the following night in San Pedro’s Marine Mammal Care Center. Actress Leah Dalrymple says the non-Equity cast mounts a “huge team effort” setting up and striking stages and lights every night, not unlike traveling Shakespearean troupes of yore.
“I’m practically living out of my car,” jokes Dalrymple, who’s found it an interesting technical and dialect challenge to jump between playing the regal Hermione as well as Bohemian shepherdess Dorcas in “Winter’s Tale” and the earthy “busybody” Mistress Quickly in “Merry Wives.” “To sleep in and when I’m off on the road, I’m working a day job and then making my commute out to wherever we’re performing. I’ve got clothes in the car, I’ve got food in the car, I’ve got little bags for all of my stuff. [Laughs] I really feel connected to the troubadours of the old days.”
“It’s a lot of changes every single night, which is part of the fun of the gig: you never really quite know what you’re going to get,” agrees smooth-toned “Merry Wives” director Cylan “Cy” Brown, who has worked with SBTS for nine years and says their shows attract numerous families experiencing Shakespeare for the first time. The plays’ different sets share the same floor configuration with minor alterations, and Brown says he offers the same advice to new SBTS actors: “You really are like the traveling troubadours going from castle to castle, and you get to know the citizens of the area. It’s about as close to the true Shakespeare experience as you can expect to get.”
“There’s not a lot of time for getting prepared” but veteran actor Tom Killam says he’s “having a blast” in his first SBTS season, despite logistical hurdles. Killam, who worked with another Shakespeare company in the past (and is known to Glendale Center Theatre audiences as Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”), portrays the trusty Old Shepherd as well as First Lord in “Winter’s Tale.” He hadn’t expected an opportunity to also tackle Falstaff — one of the classical canon’s greatest mettle-testing roles — because he lacks the physical girth. But like Tom Hanks, who won raves for his recent turn as Falstaff in the Shakespeare Center of LA’s production of “Henry IV,” Killam is donning a fatsuit to embody the character, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved, yet one that poses discomfiting challenges in the #MeToo age.
“He’s unabashed,” he says, laughing. “He thinks the world of himself and he’ll always try and take his best shot at being an alpha male, although he’s really just an alpha buffoon.” Killam’s foremost challenge as an actor is keeping the portly knight “bigger than life without going too far over into farcical, and having him grounded somewhat” so audiences can engage with him “as a guy” despite his many flaws.
Shakespeare’s Henry plays temper Falstaff’s titanic self-regard with more depth. In contrast, “Merry Wives” offers broad, crowd-pleasing comedy that’s easily derided; enlightened it is not, as Falstaff schemes to seduce and blackmail two wives and their wealthy husbands. (“O powerful love,” he declaims in Act Five, “that in some respects makes a beast a man, in some other a man a beast.”) But Brown champions “Wives”: “With the world being what it is and politics being pretty extreme, I think this is a time for farce and absurdity. Maybe even more so than satire or dark comedies that really sting. We need some lighthearted escape from the 24-hour news cycle.”
The infrequently produced “Winter’s Tale” is altogether meatier — and trickier to bring to life, as it slips between tragedy, comedy and magical realism, with one character famously chased offstage by a bear and another character’s statue descending from a pedestal. Threads of contemporary relevance stitch its intriguing story of family separations, reunions, true friendship and love, set in motion by the jealousy of King Leontes, a tyrant who unsettlingly resembles the White House’s Narcissist in Chief. (Who, the world can only hope, will soon also be humbled enough to ask, “Does not the stone rebuke me for being more stone than it?”) It’s called one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” director Stephanie Coltrin observes, because it’s hard to figure out how to give its changeable elements “equal weight and equal value, especially when you’re cutting it down [to fit in] two hours.”
Written around 1610, when English explorers were beginning to colonize the so-called New World, “Winter’s Tale” is backdropped by the Renaissance era’s excitement over emerging possibilities on a planet newly discovered to be round. Taking note of the play’s “very Greek” structure, Coltrin updated it to Victorian times during the Greek Revival architectural movement, when “women were finding their voice. Shakespeare has written really powerful, beautiful women in this play.” Costuming the women in clothes that are corseted and staid, yet curve with a soft Grecian drape, further underscores how they are “finding power in their femininity instead of it being a hindrance. …
“What I love about the play is that it came at a time in Shakespeare’s life when he was exploring redemption and grace,” Coltrin says. “When we all get older we understand the need to look at that. To me, it’s his most beautiful play. I love the language, I love the story, but for me it’s about the power of the emotion and the power of the reunion that happens at the end, and that the reunion’s facilitated through the younger people. We did a slight restructuring so there’s a big entrance, and the audience can feel this big upsurge in hope.”
Shakespeare By the Sea presents “The Winter’s Tale” at Garfield Park, 1000 Park Ave., South Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 19; free admission. Info: (310) 217-7596. shakespearebythesea.org