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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Shakespeare in the Park brings stories alive in Buffalo

Published: August 23, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

Whether you love Shakespeare’s plays or you hate them, everyone loves Shakespeare in the Park. Shakespeare in Delaware Park has been a Buffalo, N.Y., tradition since 1976. Free and open to the public, performances take place Tuesday through Sunday in a beautiful park in the city of Buffalo. This summer, hundreds of Buffalonians came out to watch “Hamlet” from June 20 to July 14 and “Measure for Measure” from July 25 to Aug. 18.

“Hamlet” is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known, iconic tragedies. In this play, Hamlet’s father, the king, dies and the king’s brother Claudius marries Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. He assumes the crown shortly after his sibling’s passing. The ghost of the former king haunts his son to tell him that Claudius murdered him, and to encourage Hamlet to avenge his father’s death. With his suspicions confirmed, Hamlet devises a plot to expose his treacherous uncle. Unfortunately, he ends up in a sword fight against Claudius’s henchman Laertes. As in all Shakespearean tragedies, almost everyone ends up dead on the stage when all is said and done, including Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude.

I read “Hamlet” twice during the past two semesters, so I was intrigued to see this interpretation of the play. The set and costumes were quite impressive for a free, outdoor theater. The set consisted of multiple levels and staircases, which allowed the actors to hide from other characters or create more space and dimension in the scene.

While Claudius (Tim Newell) had a great stage presence and played his part well, Hamlet (Shaun Sheley) fell a little short. Shakespeare did not specify Hamlet’s age in the play, so critics debate whether he is more of a whiny teenager or a young man in his upper twenties or early thirties. The actor, Sheley, was much older, and while he had a lot of acting experience, he did not quite fit the part. For one, it looked strange to see someone as old as himself pouting and throwing temper tantrums at his deceased father. Throughout the text, Hamlet borders on insanity, forcing the reader to decide whether or not he has lost his mind, but this director chose to portray him as cool and collected as if he knew exactly what he was doing the entire time.

And even though the director cut scenes from the text, the play was still a bit too long. It ran for more than two and a half hours, which is a long time to sit on a hill at night. Overall, the performance’s ending was very well done, with an exciting sword fight and dramatic finish.

Shakespeare in Delaware Park always puts on a comedy to balance out the tragedy, and they assume a lighter mood and play around with theme. This year’s comedy, “Measure for Measure,” took place in what appeared to be America’s Wild West, though they claimed it to be Vienna. Complete with music, a sheriff and saloon girls, this production was a blast to watch.

“Measure for Measure” is not as well-known as “Hamlet,” yet the plot is more similar to a modern soap opera than sixteenth century literature. In Shakespeare’s version, a duke decides to go undercover to see what will go on during his absence. When he puts his deputy, Angelo, in charge, Angelo decides to enforce the rules—which includes persecuting premarital sex—with an iron fist. To set an example, he arrests and plans to execute Claudio, who impregnated his lover Juliet. When hearing of this, Claudio’s sister and soon-to-be nun, Isabella, begs Angelo to reconsider. He decides to comply, ironically, only if Isabella sleeps with him. Remaining chaste, she enlists the help of the undercover duke to trick Angelo into sleeping with his former lover Mariana, only revealing the tricks and the duke himself.

In this musical adaptation, the duke was a sheriff and the play was full of saloon girls, cowboys, western accents and country western tunes. Although many traditionalists do not like tinkering with Shakespeare’s original script, the play lent itself quite well to the theme change. The set was not elaborate and the smattering of props did the trick. The audience not only laughed at the sprinkled sexual humor throughout but also sang along with the popular melodies including “Home on the Range,” “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and “Happy Trails.” Pompey (Ray Boucher) took the spotlight with his endearing comedy and Lucio (Zak Ward) brought a spark to the performance with his charisma.

Shakespeare in the Park is popular nationwide, but Buffalo’s own in Delaware Park is one of the city’s gems; the cast and crew proved itself again with these two wonderful productions.