THEATER: No Picnic

Raphael Parry has the tricky task of producing Shakespeare outdoors-the very place the Bard intended. But the Bard didn’t have to contend with I-30. PLUS: the clowns behind Slappy’s Playhouse.

UP TO THE TASK: “It’s a real challenge working out at the amphitheater, because you’re working on such a huge scale,” Parry says. “I can at least make sure the pictures connect, then people can relax and let the language flow over them.”
In the summer of 1981, when my wife and I were poor graduate students at the University of Dallas with two small children, we got a babysitter for the night and headed down to Samuell-Grand Park to see As You Like It, that summer’s Shakespeare offering in the amphitheater. We spread out the blanket, got out the picnic, and waited for the show to start.

When it did, we watched for a few minutes, and I couldn’t stand it. Squirming with impatience, I whispered, “Let’s get out of here.” My wife thought I was righteously incensed that the performance wasn’t good, so we gathered up our things and left. Fortunately, we were far from the stage.

It wasn’t the performance, though. (I think Sigourney Weaver, fresh from Alien, was playing Rosalind that summer.) It was the play itself: Rosalind in disguise, earnest Orlando, sour Jaques, the incomprehensibly punning Touchstone, the whole footnoted lot of them. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t stomach the official “Shakespeare” thing, the weird pretentiousness of all that pastoral stuff in Arden on a summer night in Dallas. This despite the fact that I was writing my dissertation at the time on Shakespeare’s comedies.

Not wanting to waste the babysitter, I insisted that we go see Road Warrior at one of the malls. Once my wife saw the ugly truth, this leaving-Shakespeare episode became Exhibit A of my true philistinism for at least a decade. But Mel Gibson as Mad Max fighting the bad guys, who look like a motorized barbarian tribe out of the Iliad by way of Hell’s Angels, in a future that has run out of gas-are you kidding? I loved it. I still love it, especially after reading James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency last summer, not to mention Jared Diamond’s Collapse more recently. A certain apocalyptic edge, shall we say, has entered my thinking, especially at gas pumps.

It’s a Family Affair
Clown around this summer at Slappy’s Puppet Playhouse.

Floppy red shoes and a shiny red nose do not a clown make. Clowning is an art, one that Dick Monday and his wife (above), Irving native Tiffany Riley, have mastered. Monday once directed the Ringling Bros. Clown College, and Riley (aka Slappy) taught there. They’ve performed worldwide, including with the Big Apple Circus, and created a troupe called the New York Goofs. Monday has done television and film with the likes of David Letterman and Woody Allen. And those, believe it or not, are just the highlights.

In 2004, they opened Slappy’s Puppet Playhouse, where they produce and perform their own puppet and variety shows. Think classic tales with a twist and Ed Sullivan for the 21st century, respectively.

Passing down this art is fundamental to its survival. But the clowning couple needn’t worry. Their 5-year-old son Chet is already getting into the act, and they’re guessing that 3-year-old Lily will not be far behind.

For those not born into clowning, Slappy’s is holding a Summer Circus Camp (July 10-14), where school-age kids can learn juggling, plate spinning, magic tricks, puppet making, and clowning routines. For the younger set, Slappy’s will host a six-week Music for Aardvarks and Other Mammals (June 3-July 8 and July 15-August 19), which Monday calls the hipster version of Kindermusik.

Monday and Riley met when she was choreographing a show for him. Says Monday, “Suddenly we were in business together in more ways than one.”

Slappy’s Puppet Playhouse @ Galleria Dallas, 13350 Dallas Pkwy. 214-369-4849.

Besides, Shakespeare has been so idolized that “bardolatry” long ago invaded the dictionary, and it’s hard not to rebel on occasion against something so oppressively official as the Shakespeare Industry. The trouble is, if that’s your attitude, you’d better not read Shakespeare at all, because once you start, you quickly discover that he knows exactly how you feel-right, Iago?-and he has already ennobled you with language better than you ever could have hoped for.

This summer Shakespeare Dallas, formerly Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, does the two plays that seem to be his brilliant frame for this long European and American enterprise that we call “the West” (speaking of a future that’s running out of gas). The accomplished René Moreno directs A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Musical, opening on June 24, set during Theseus’ founding of Athens-symbolically, the beginning of the classical tradition. What it will be like as a musical, I can’t begin to guess.

Shakespeare Dallas artistic director Raphael Parry will undertake The Tempest (June 16), often considered Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. It’s about the loss of genuine culture and the usurpation of legitimate authority by low, Machiavellian men. Forced out of power, stripped of all technological aid, Prospero soon sees the advantages of going off the grid with his infant daughter. As the world’s needle hits empty, so to speak, Mad Magus (a phrase worth at least another decade of reproach) recovers the powers of nature and the spirit world.

Taken together, both plays are weirdly “green”-so much so that the critic Northrop Frye coined the phrase “green world” to describe the places where the characters in comedies like these go to work out problems insuperable in the city. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s the forest outside Athens; in The Tempest, it’s Prospero’s island. That makes Shakespeare in the park on a midsummer night especially appealing. Here it is: the lawns and trees of Samuell- Grand Park, the magic island of the stage, genuine (if obscured) starlight.

But that green world is the problem, of course. Not only are there traffic noises from I-30, but mosquitoes, darting kids knocking over drinks, and the sheer size of the place. As a director who started out working in spaces like the Bath House Cultural Center in 1982 and then co-founded Undermain Theatre with Katherine Owens, Raphael Parry now has the extraordinarily difficult task of getting these plays about the outdoors to succeed outdoors.

“It’s a real challenge working out in the amphitheater, because you’re working on such a huge scale,” Parry says. “You always have to approach it first from the visual. What do you watch? What do you pay attention to? How can I tell the story, at first visually?”

Sandra Greenway, the executive director who is pulling Shakespeare Dallas out of the red, agrees. “You really do have to see actors so you know who’s talking, so then you can follow the plot of the story. Raphael’s really good at that.”

Parry says, “I can at least make sure all the pictures connect. Then people can relax a little bit and let the language flow over them. It’s a really odd place to work, because you can’t see their lips move if you get too far back.”

But then there’s the problem of the language that’s flowing over them. Sometimes you have to force yourself, in your intellectual pride, to laugh knowingly-“Yes, ha ha ha, I read that footnote, I’m cracking up here”-at jokes that lost their topical punch decades before Charles the First lost his head. Imagine trying to understand an episode of The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live 400 years from now.

The best comedies aren’t necessarily funny, though, so they don’t depend on jokes in the first place. And A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are less encumbered with footnote material and alien conventions than As You Like It, with its mocking homage to the pastoral shepherd and shepherdess fad. (What was that, exactly?)

On the other hand, they involve a different problem, because The Tempest, at least, is also among the most performed. So I ask Raphael Parry how to keep Shakespeare fresh.

“To keep it fresh, you re-approach it each time as if it’s a brand-new play-even though it’s 400 years old. That means looking at it through the lens of, ’I’ve never read this play, I’ve never heard anything about it, I’m an audience member who’s coming to it for the first time ever.’ So how do I tell the story? I think that’s the primary thing.”

He also says that his own memory-or lack of it-helps him out considerably when it comes to thinking of the plays as new.

“It’s a great trait as a director,” he says. “I literally have trouble remembering plots. So it’s a surprise to me, and I go, ’Oh, wow, that happens at the end!’ Like we were doing The Merchant of Venice, and I go, ’Oh yeah! There’s a happy ending! All I remember is the trial scene.’ So it’s a wonderful surprise to me sometimes.”

Maybe it’s a premonition. That kind of discovery is what it will be like someday, after all the highways go silent and native prairie grasses grow up through the cracks. Somebody with a Shakespeare volume will start to read again, until he comes to the old story and reads it through and looks up in sudden recognition: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own.” We always forget it ends that way.

Save the Dates

May 25-June 18
Richard Greenberg’s 2003 play Take Me Out won the Tony for its story about a star who breaks the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of Major League Baseball. WaterTower Theatre @ Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Rd., Addison. 972-450-6232.

June 2-25
Don’t miss Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival, seven staged readings of new plays from hundreds of submissions and a full-scale production of the winner of KDT’s national new play competition. The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. 214-953-1055.

June 8-July 2
Local playwright Lee Trull has a triple (The Gift of the Magi) and a strikeout (Puppet Boy). His strengths lie in the American vein, so Classical Acting Company’s Mark Twain’s Huck Finn is a natural. Fannin Hall @ Richland College, 12800 Abrams Rd. 214-505-1655.


Photos: Parry: Allison V. Smith; Slappy: Courtesy of Dick Monday and Tiffany Riley


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