Hampshire Shakespeare Company, performing on an outdoor stage on the grounds of the Hartsbrook School, Hadley, Massachusetts. Directed by Lucinda Kidder
This amateur company — a fine, ambitious community theatre — has been offering two Shakespeare plays over the course of the summer for several years, and have attempted such difficult works as King Lear, to much success. I don’t know if the stage director is paid; I presume no one else is. Some actors are high-school students; others, college and university students; still others, more mature persons known in the community. Walter Carroll, who plays the title role, is familiar as the host of afternoon classical music on WFCR (88.5 FM); Nicholas Dahlman had a feature role in the Valley Light Opera Ruddigore last November (which I directed); David Mix Barrington, who doubled as the cobbler and in other roles, was in the Ruddigore chorus (by day he is Professor of computer science at UMass Amherst). Dolph Paulson, the Anthony, is a serious student of theatre and was in my course in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama at the University last fall and in my lecture course on American drama this past spring; and so on. They are earnest and able actors, all of them, and have been well coached by Lucinda Kidder to speak the verse (and prose, for that matter) clearly and without affectation.
I took my thirteen-year-old grandson to see the production, along with my usual companion. It was his first experience of a live Shakespeare play, and so this was something of a test for actors, director, and play alike. He liked the play and the production very well and was able to follow the action without difficulty. He said he understood the words well enough, if not without occasional difficulty. And so the test was a successful one, and he is ready to go back for more.
The casting was good, especially the Caesar and the Antony; Carroll and Paulson are not hugely talented, but they are competent, and the timing is very good. Paulson may have the makings of a good professional actor in him; it is hard to tell. He was directed by Kidder to listen carefully, to focus on the details of the ongoing scene, and to play his fidelity to Caesar as a kind of badge of courage. So the character was credible and held the attention of the audience well. There was probably little or no time to elucidate nuance, and some of his lines seemed superficially rendered. But his soliloquy to the corpse of Caesar — “Oh, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of flesh, That I am meek and gentle with these butchers” — was full of thought and purpose, though we caught little of the anger that underlies it.
Hampshire Shakespeare has the great advantage of performing on a rolling greensward with a lovely, idyllic view of the Holyoke range in the distance; cows graze contentedly in the middle distance as the late afternoon wanes (performance time is 7:00 p.m.). A permanent set, simple and functional and capable of some decoration to suit the play, does yeoman service for comedy, tragedy, and history. This was the company’s first foray into the Roman plays — Antony and Cleopatra might be beyond them, and Coriolanus could not be attempted without an actor better than any we saw this night; but Julius Caesar was well within their ken, and the evening was little short of a delight. Rain that had pummeled the region for several days held off, and the cool air may have been a bit too cool for actors dressed mostly in skimpy, jerry-built togas (though some excellent sandals had been provided, courtesy of an arts grant of some kind). One has the feeling that this is shoestring Shakespeare at its best and that the company could well be overwhelmed by a large infusion of grant money that might underwrite more spectacular costumes, improved decor, and other elements of summer theatre more usually found in professional circumstances. I will look forward to the second play of this summer’s series, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opens July 15.