It's remarkable what you can do in a well-equipped theater these days. Mechanical devices—like trapdoors, flying scenery, revolves, video projections, hydraulic lifts—are standard equipment, and that's on top of extraordinary sound systems and banks of lights. We've come a long way from the days of Shakespeare's open-air "wooden O," the Globe Theatre, and I've no doubt that when the Bard himself saw Blackfriar's—his company's second indoor home with its elaborate stage machinery and artificial lighting—his reaction was: "coole."
Like any theater geek, Shakespeare used every stage trick Blackfriar's had on offer, and his late plays like Cymbeline and The Tempest are filled with transformations, flying effects, and other mechanical spectacle. But in enhancing stage effects, contemporary artists often come close to losing what theater's fundamentally about: actors communicating a play to an audience.
To get some of that primal theater experience, I spent a recent Sunday in Volunteer Park at the Outdoor Theater Festival, a completely splendid annual event that brings together several companies for a weekend of free performances. My plan was to see four shows in a row. But while I remembered my water, my sandwich, and my notepad, I forgot my sunscreen, and after the third show, I fled home for the relief of an ice-cold bath. (Sorry, Greenstage.)
The plays and the companies represented a range of experience and budget, but I was surprised how quickly such distractions as airplanes, Frisbee-tossers, and even ice cream trucks fade away once a group of actors in period costumes start working through a text. The Young Shakespeare Workshop's production of King Lear, for example, lacked so much as a cloud in the sky for the storm-tossed-heath scene, but while audio projection was a problem for these earnest Shakespeare students, dramatic focus was not.
I enjoyed Theater Schmeater's mounting of the sweet fairy tale The Reluctant Dragon, particularly Josh Hartvigson's outrageously fey turn as the dragon, complete with platform shoes and a natty little set of wings. But the theatrical highlight of the day was Wooden O's brisk and broad production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, with Eric Ray Anderson such a nimble Falstaff that I feared for his core temperature under all of that padding. (The show continues at Volunteer Park, weekends at 5 p.m., through Aug. 11.)
Wooden O gets top-notch actors like Anderson, Heather Hawkins, and Bob DeDea, and then somehow convinces them to give up the pleasures of air conditioning and dressing rooms for the athleticism of outdoor performance. "We have to learn not to be too precious about things indoor actors take for granted," says Wooden O's artistic director George Mount. "SeaTac has jet planes, Lynnwood is a bit dusty, Seattle Center is, well...Seattle Center! I figure it's our job to be the better distraction no matter where we are."
Mount, who founded Wooden O in 1994, says the inspiration for the company began back in high school on Mercer Island, where he and his friends used to make up impromptu plays on the stage of the Luther Burbank Amphitheater. One MFA and a couple of decades later, Mount's company has become the region's premier outdoor theater group, with more than 7,000 people seeing their productions during the summer months. It's also expanded its repertoire beyond larky park standards like Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, producing problematic scripts like All's Well That Ends Well and dark material such as Hamlet and Macbeth, despite the obvious difficulties of producing tragedy in the cool of a summer evening or the staring sun of the afternoon.
As for Merry Wives, I discovered something with Wooden O's production that had been absent the three times I've seen the play before—unforced but absolute frivolity. No other play by Shakespeare, including the dim-witted As You Like It, is so outrageously forgiving of human weakness. Falstaff himself, the drunk, bully, and would-be adulterer, ends the play pardoned and actually feted. Mistakes have harsher consequences, I'm sure—my roasted neck and arms remind me of that. But it's oh so pleasant to believe otherwise on a summer day in a park, while butterflies flit and actors sing.