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Company bring bard’s own style to series of park performances

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
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4 Photos
The Original Practice Shakespeare Company performs "Comedie of Errors" at Esther Short Park in 2013.
The Original Practice Shakespeare Company performs "Comedie of Errors" at Esther Short Park in 2013. The company gives a fast-paced performance with little rehearsal and minimal props and encourages audience participation. Photo Gallery

o What: “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a comedy by William Shakespeare, presented by the Original Practice Shakespeare Company.

o Where: Esther Short Park, Columbia and West Eighth streets.

o When: 2 p.m. Sunday.

o Cost: Free.

o Website: www.opsfest.org

Zounds and forsooth, gentle folk: There will be Shakespeare in Esther Short Park again this summer — this Sunday afternoon, in fact.

Huzzah and hey-ho: The performance will doubtless be punctuated by improvised silliness as the players repeatedly stop the show and mark time in deference to the deafening planes, trains and automobiles that regularly besiege the park like — well, like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.

That’s how the Original Practice Shakespeare Company does its thing: by adapting to the situation and making merry with it. When air traffic roars in and out of PDX or rumbles along the railway so nobody can hear the bard’s beautiful words, the dramaturge (prompter) blows a whistle to call time-out — and the actors adopt some goofy delaying tactic.

They run around making whooshing noises and flapping their arms. They form a human choo-choo train to parallel what’s happening on the tracks nearby. Or they just tease and flirt with the audience — until the interruption is over and they can get back to the serious work of having fun with Shakespeare.

o What: "The Merry Wives of Windsor," a comedy by William Shakespeare, presented by the Original Practice Shakespeare Company.

o Where: Esther Short Park, Columbia and West Eighth streets.

o When: 2 p.m. Sunday.

o Cost: Free.

o Website: www.opsfest.org

Esther Short Park definitely is the noisiest, busiest, most unpredictable spot on the OPS Company’s summer tour of Portland-area parks, according to founder and artistic director Brian Allard. And that fits the mission just fine, he said.

In Shakespeare’s day, theater provided the masses’ nightly entertainment; you didn’t switch on the tube or head for the cinema, you went downtown and checked out what was on stage. (And maybe you brought some fling-able food with you, too, in case the performance was a dud.) Of course, that required a nightly rotation of shows — otherwise you’d be stuck watching the same “live rerun” over and over again.

Actors appearing in five or six plays a week, and likely playing multiple roles within those plays, didn’t have time for rehearsal, Allard said. Plus, OPS actor and Columbia River High School graduate Brian Burger added, the number of theaters and the number of plays in rotation — and the lack of copyright laws as we know them today — meant that actors could take their scripts and vamoose for the competition’s venue. It was like pirating a copy of a popular movie to screen at the cinema next door.

“Actors were not trustworthy people,” said Burger. (That’s all changed now, of course.)

The solution — which saved on printing costs, too — was to issue each actor a stripped-down script that included their own lines only, with the final few words of the previous speaker’s last line providing the most minimal of cues.

Which makes for something like real-world dialog, Burger said: “All these moments are new to you. You have to really be in the moment, listening and reacting. That’s both a joy and a challenge. You don’t have time to think. Everything is unrehearsed.”

Unrehearsed? More or less. The OPS rule is, once you’ve been assigned a role you may study your own lines only — but reading the whole play is absolutely forbidden.

“Earlier this year, we had our first night of Richard III and I’d never read or played the scenes,” Burger said. What role was Burger playing? “I was Richard,” he said.

Back in Shakespeare’s day, those redacted scripts were printed not in booklets but on scrolls — and that’s the source of the theatrical term “role,” Burger said. Your role was your scroll, he said.

And that’s still the way OPS actors do it — they carry those scrolls around onstage, keeping one eye on the live action and one eye on Shakespeare’s words.

Don’t they get lost? Confused? Not to mention interrupted by an unruly real world? You bet they do — and that’s part of the fun, Allard said.

“In our second season we played at Marine Park” on the Vancouver waterfront, he said, where the competition for attention included two different bands — rock and mariachi — and a child driving a little motorized ATV back and forth in front of the performance while it was underway.

“That’s still perhaps our most notoriously distracted show,” Allard said. “We still talk about that one.”

Vancouver roots

That was years ago, Allard said, when the company was still relatively new and close to its roots. Allard, a Minneapolis native who trained for years at the New England Shakespeare Festival, thought that Portland, with its reputation for “weirdness,” would be a good home for this raw, original performance technique; he was living in an apartment in the Ellsworth neighborhood in 2008 when he brainstormed and launched the project.

“The entire conception of the company started while I was living in Vancouver,” he said. OPS started out small, he said, but now it’s built up to quite the busy company. This year, he said, OPS is doing 32 performances of 11 different plays in 11 different parks and other locations — mostly in and around Portland but also traveling to Nehalem Bay State Park on the Oregon Coast on Aug. 14 and 15. Before that, from July 23 to Aug. 2, the troupe will even perform all 11 plays in 10 days in Portland’s Laurelhurst Park. Check the website for details.

“We don’t spend six weeks rehearsing one play,” Allard quipped, “we spend no time rehearsing 11 plays.”

Vancouver almost didn’t happen this year for a number of reasons, Allard said, having mostly to do with scheduling and renting the popular park — which used to be free for a small, free event like this, but alas! no more — until Pacific Office Automation and Old Ivy Taproom stepped in as local sponsors, covering the cost of a single performance in Esther Short Park.

Which leaves you, the audience, the role of keeping the company fed and watered. No, Allard laughed, this isn’t a hobby troupe that goofs on Shakespeare in its spare time; this is a group of dedicated professionals who stay crazy-busy acting for a living — with OPS and other companies too, he said.

“Some of our actors are juggling 30 different parts in a season,” Allard said. “It’s much in the way Shakespeare’s actors would have rotated shows.”

Therefore, he said, he’s trusting that the audience that turns out for Sunday’s performance will be generous when the company starts begging for pieces of gold.

“Aside from being excited and engaged and involved, the Esther Short audience has always been one of our most generous,” he said.

‘Falstaff in love’

Nearly everything Shakespeare wrote was based on earlier source material, Allard pointed out: histories and legends, folk tales and prior literary works.

Sunday’s offering is different, he said: “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is one of very few Shakespeare works that appear to be entirely original. The others are “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Love’s Labor’s Lost” and “The Tempest,” according to one online bard database.

The star of the show is the drunken buffoon Sir John Falstaff, a fictional creation who provided comic relief in some of Shakespeare’s earlier history plays; legend has it, Allard said, that a certain key Shakespeare fan and supporter — Queen Elizabeth — was “so enamored” of the Falstaff character that she asked the bard to write a new play about “Falstaff in love.”

“That’s sort of what this play is about,” Allard said. “Actually, it’s more about him trying to get with a couple of married ladies.”

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