No one can say Artistic Director Jennifer Tober and the Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks hasn’t been busy over the past twelve seasons. The company has been producing free public performances of Shakespeare’s works in the Pittsburgh city parks since 2005. In September 2016, they celebrated 12 seasons of shows with 8 public performances of The Comedy of Errors, playing to over 1800 patrons.
Now in its 13th season, Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks will offer the stirring, magnificent history play Henry V, directed by local favorite, professional storyteller and longtime PSIP member Alan Irvine each weekend in September 2017.
One of Shakespeare’s great history plays, Henry V is the final part of a tetralogy, preceded by Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, and Henry IV, Part 2. It is arguably one of the more difficult Shakespeare plays to tackle and perhaps not as well-known as some of the comedies or tragedies that have been standard fare for the able company since its inception.
When asked why Henry V, Jennifer Tober offered some compelling insight. “We’ve managed to shirk the History plays for 13 years, and we’re due for one!…Alan (Irvine) has been clamoring to direct HENRY V for a while, and we decided that this year in particular, politically speaking, would be an apropos time to offer a Shakespeare piece that deals with political intrigue and the making of a great ruler, and nations vying to dominate one another, all the while showing a glimpse into the deeply personal motivations and aspirations of rulers and the pressures they face.”
When asked what patrons might expect of the story, Tober said that while the play is indeed a history, it is quite funny at times as well as full of drama and adventure. For those concerned that the play might be too dense for their taste, Tober assured, “Our performances are extremely accessible to all folks from all walks of life. We make choices vocally, physically and through characterization that allow our audiences to identify in a way that they may not be able to in a more rigid venue. Henry V is appropriate for all ages and has something for everyone from young kids to adults. I just love outdoor Shakespeare and our audiences agree.”
Following on the heels of the hugely successful Comedy of Errors last year, Henry will expose PSIP audiences to the story of the growth of “Prince HAL”, his struggle to leave behind his boyhood impetuousness and rise to the occasion of leading England in victory over France in the famed Battle of Agincourt. “It is interesting to look at this ruler who starts as this bratty kid and then, throughout the cycle of the plays ends up having what it takes to be a man in battle and approach difficult choices head on,” said Tober, “It is so exciting to see him come into his own and make good choices after so many not so good ones.”
Alan Irvine directed The Tempest for PSIP in 2008, and is the host for PSIP’s Bring Your Own Bard monthly reading series. Irvine’s production will use 8 actors (with an additional young company of soldiers also numbering seven), with all except the title role doubling, tripling, and in some cases, quadrupling.
As is common in PSIP shows, Irvine plans to blur the line between action and audience and allow the audience to become a character itself. “We plan to use the audience as members of the cast,” Irvine said, “If you attend the show, Henry may just wander into your group and include you in the action of the play. We have audience members who return year after year with their blankets, picnic baskets and beverage of choice to enjoy a day in the park and a free performance. They love being part of the show and there are many opportunities within Henry V to include them!” Audience members might find themselves playing the roles of the court – the nobles, ladies, servants; becoming the English and French armies; helping fire up Henry and his soldiers on in the famed St. Crispin’s speech. Many regular PSIP love this participatory side of the experience and it keeps them coming back. “The interactive nature of our performances is something that our audiences really enjoy,” Tober added, “We use everything that is available to us to tell the story. The environment is a big part of this and the audience does not just watch in a removed way, but participate and become part of the show, just like the trees and the grounds and the sky and everything around us.” For those newbies planning to attend, be ready to play a role!
The exciting cast includes Lamar Cheston, a New York City native who has appeared Off-Broadway in Angels Over Tuskegee, with Pittsburgh Playwrights (Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water) and Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre (Oedipus Rex) as HENRY; Stoney Richards (Pistol and Exeter), known for being a radio personality at CBS (WDSY-FM and KDKA) and appearing in many films and tv shows as well as Off-Broadway and locally in Pittsburgh. Both Cheston and Richards are members of Actors Equity. Local favorites Tonya R. Lynn as the bawdy and big-hearted Mistress Quickly and Nick Benninger as Gower and French Maid Alice will provide many laughs for those looking for a picnic and a smile. Rounding out the cast are Amy Dick, Ryan Bergman, Bob Colbert, Sarah Carleton; as well as a company of young local actors playing the “Soldiers Company.” Both Tober and Irvine are thrilled with the level of talent available in the Pittsburgh market and are looking forward to presenting this incredible cast of union and non-union actors to the community with some brand-new faces as well as some regulars at PSIP. Longtime PSIP collaborator Lisa Leibering will serve as Production and Costume designer (Comedy of Errors, Supernatural Shakespeare, King Lear, As You Like It, Romeo & Juliet). Tober said that the costumes are usually a somewhat utilitarian base with a lot of fantastic pieces that come as go as the play progresses which serves the actors and the play well in the outdoor arena.
As always, audience is encouraged to bring folding chairs or blankets and a picnic. All ages. All shows are FREE with donations encouraged. “And the show will go on rain or shine unless there is thunder or lightening,” Tober added, “We rarely cancel a performance. Sometimes we may get a little rain but this can be fun for everyone!”
The schedule is as follows:
Saturdays and Sundays through September – all shows at 2 PM
Sept. 2 and 3 – Frick Park, Blue Slide playground, Beechwood Blvd. and Nicholson St, Squirrel Hill
Sept. 9 and 10 – Highland Park, across from the Super Playground, Reservoir Drive
Sept. 16 and 17 – Arsenal Park, 40th Street between Penn and Butler Streets
Sept. 23 and 24 – Frick Park, Blue Slide playground, Beechwood Blvd. and Nicholson St, Squirrel Hill
PSIP will celebrate the run of HENRY V with its first fundraising dinner party at MAD MEX Shadyside (220 S. Highland Ave) on Tuesday, September 26th with all proceeds going to support PSIP’s mission of free Shakespeare for all Pittsburghers. This is an awesome opportunity to meet the play makers and support local theatre while having a fantastic evening. MAD MEX will be donating the evening for this worthy cause and tickets can and should be purchased in advance. Check out their website here for more information.
Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks was founded in 2005 by Artistic Director Jennifer Tober and has offered FREE Shakespeare productions to thousands of Pittsburghers since its inception.
For those who have never experienced PSIP, expect some serious fun!
Photos by Catherine Aceto