The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has a lot of experience presenting outdoor shows. Its annual outdoor productions at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morris Township have been dependable highlights of New Jersey’s summer theater season for years.
This summer, of course, the theater had to cancel its College of Saint Elizabeth show (which was scheduled to be “Much Ado About Nothing”). Still, it has come up with a way to offer some live theater — and is, in fact, one of the few Jersey theaters to be doing so — with a smaller-scale series at what it is calling its Back Yard Stage. The stage is in front of the back wall of the theater’s Thomas H. Kean Theatre Factory in Florham Park — a building it uses for storage, rehearsing, office space and more — and audience members sit, socially distanced from each other, on the building’s large back lawn.
The theater is currently presenting two productions in rotation through Aug. 16: “Very, Madly Thine” (subtitled “A Collection of Moments and Scenes Exploring Love and Lunacy From William Shakespeare’s Canon With Other Love Poems”) and a double bill of two short plays, Molière’s “The Love Doctor” and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Aria da Capo.” (Aug. 13 Update: These rotating productions have now been extended through Aug. 23.)
Both productions feature eight actors from The Shrewd Mechanicals (the Shakespeare Theatre’s summer touring troupe) who have been sequestered together since the start of the pandemic. There is no stage crew: The actors handle the minimal set changes that the production calls for.
As you can tell from the three photos shown in this post, the sets, though minimal, and the costumes are up to the STNJ’s usual stylish standards. Longtime STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte not only directed the production, but is credited with costume, set and sound design.
To state the obvious, it’s wonderful to be able to experience live theater again during this wretched summer for the arts. That said, the production that I saw, “The Love Doctor”/”Aria da Capo” (I have not seen “Very, Madly Thine”), is rather modest in its ambitions.
I had no problem with the acting or the staging, and though seated near the back of the lawn (since I came with a fairly high lawn chair), I could hear every word. But I can’t say I loved the writing of either of these short works (together, they lasted about an hour and 15 minutes).
“The Love Doctor” is an amusing but very slight play, here “loosely translated and adapted” (in the words of the program) by Monte, with frequent use of modern-sounding phrases such as “the real deal” and “what in the holy hell is wrong?” Young lovers Lucinda and Clitandre scheme to trick Lucinda’s stodgy father, Sganarelle (who objects to the union), in order to be able to marry. Billie Wyatt, as Lucinda, has the juiciest role, due to the character’s tendency to manipulate with over-the-top histrionics. And Molière has some wicked fun at the expense of four doctors who have no idea how to treat the supposedly sick Lucinda, and so hide their incompetence by stalling for time and grandstanding imperiously.
But Molière — who himself called the play “hurriedly written,” the program tells us — offers little in the way of characterization, and the farce-like complications are minimal. Monte and the Shrewd Mechanicals make the most of the material, but there’s just not a lot there to start with.
After a brief set change (not a full intermission), the program proceeded with Millay’s meatier “Aria da Capo.”
This work begin and ends with scenes full of frivolous chatter and non sequiturs (“I cannot live without a macaroon,” “If you were a fly, you’d be dead by now”). In the middle is a grim, violent allegory. Meanwhile, the actors occasionally break the third wall and Jeffrey Marc Alkins, who played the hapless Sganarelle in “The Love Doctor,” is, here, a more forceful authority figure, the play’s God-like director, Cothurnus, looking down upon his actors from the top of a ladder.
The comic is absurdly juxtaposed with the tragic in service of a greater philosophical point. Millay seems to be more interested in giving viewers things to think about than in really engaging them, dramatically.
Monte comes up with some clever touches throughout the evening, adding a topical mask joke to “The Love Doctor” and having some characters speak from the windows of the Thomas H. Kean Theatre Factory during “Aria da Capo.”
This two-for-one program represents a noble effort to salvage something out of the summer theater season. But ultimately, it’s not a totally satisfying substitute for what “Much Ado About Nothing” surely would have been.
“The Love Doctor”/“Aria Da Capo” and “Verily, Mady Thine” rotate outdoors at Thomas H. Kean Theatre Factory in Florham Park through Aug. 23. Visit shakespearenj.org.
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