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Guest blogger Paul Hechinger has returned with a new post. This week, he takes us inside the world of Shakespeare in the Park. But this isn’t your grandfather’s Shakespeare. Not even your great-grandfather’s, actually. A new festival in New York’s Central Park attempts to capture the freewheelin’ spirit of Shakespeare’s original productions.

And now, a blog entry without any superstar celebs from either side of the Pond – with one very notable exception: the biggest showbiz figure ever to come from the British Isles – the Bard of Avon himself, William Shakespeare.

Okay, it’s a rather long-winded way of saying I went to see terrific, engaging productions of Macbeth, Richard III, and The Taming of the Shrew last weekend, here in New York City, performed in Central Park.

The plays, which comprise the Shakespeare Gone Wild festival, are performed just about ten minutes away from the site of the well-known Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions. And like the Public Theater productions, these are outdoors and free, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Two theater groups have teamed up to produce Shakespeare Gone Wild – Spontaneous Shakespeare Players and WildBard. They’re attempting to produce Shakespeare’s plays in the same spirit they were performed in Elizabethan England.

At the beginning of each play, co-founder Melinda Stewart explains to the audience that plays were the blockbuster popular entertainment of their day, not high art. Fittingly, Elizabethan audiences were far less passive than today’s theatergoers. They cheered and booed more often, and they often contributed their own thoughts in ways that would get you thrown out of most theaters today.

The Shakespeare Gone Wild players proudly proclaim: “We’re bringing BAWDY back!” And yet, at the same time, the plays are easily accessible – and appropriate – for all ages.

To approximate Elizabethan performance conditions, Shakespeare Gone Wild performs the three plays over three days, using actual rolls for guidance. The prompter/stage manager not only reminds the actors of their lines, but also barks orders and stage directions. Shakespeare Gone Wild’s prompters resemble referees at a sporting event: they wear striped shirts, blow whistles, and call timeouts when the noise of planes or helicopters drown out the dialogue. In such cases, the refs instruct actors and audience to sing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” or the theme from “M*A*S*H” until the noise dies down.

Of course, those aren’t the only updates – after all, in Shakespeare’s England men would have played all the roles; women, by law, were forbidden on stage.

But, as in Elizabethan times, Shakespeare Gone Wild’s audiences are expected to make their feelings known. Actors mingle or sit with them, or address parts of soliloquies directly to individuals. Players also ask audience members to help them out – during Richard III, spectators were asked to become part of the spectacle.

Here are some You Tube amateur video snippets of Richard III, played here by Adam Reich:

If you’re going to be in New York City this weekend, you can see all three plays, starting on Friday. Click here for all the schedule and location information.

But I bring Shakespeare Gone Wild up not just to point out a series of fun and engaging Shakespeare productions, but to kick off an informal project – in which you can play a role yourself.

After all, I can report to you on Shakespeare productions I see – and I’ll continue to do that – for example, next month, the excellent New York Classical Theater will also be doing Richard III in Central Park. And the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park starts its season then as well.

But I do most of my theatergoing in New York City, while Shakespeare is performed everywhere. So how about telling us here at Anglophenia about your favorite Shakespeare productions? Summer is the time for great outdoor Shakespeare, so tell us about performances in your area. Or just give us some of your thoughts about the Bard. Leave your comments below, or, if you’d like, e-mail them and we’ll post them.

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By Kevin Wicks
Kevin Wicks is the founding editor of Anglophenia.