I’ve been meaning to attend a production by NY Classical Theatre – for the past 15 years.
Going back to my days as an unpaid editorial intern in 2003, I have always written some kind of annual article on the free summertime outdoor productions of classical plays in New York City in addition to the Public Theater’s far better-known offerings at the Delacorte Theatre. The most prominent among the other companies offering free outdoor classical theater is probably the 20-year-old NY Classical Theatre, which has staged countless productions in non-traditional outdoor settings (including Central Park, The Battery, Governors Island and Brooklyn Bridge Park). In addition to Shakespeare, the company has performed works by Schiller, Chekov, Shaw, Sheridan, Moliere and even Alfred Jarry (the French symbolist behind the avant-garde Ubu Roi).
Although tickets to Shakespeare in the Park productions are free in theory, many of those tickets are reserved for donors in exchange for contributions, while other theatergoers must make a heavy investment in “sweat equity” by waiting in line in the early morning hours for their tickets. With NY Classical Theatre, attendees need only show up to a predetermined location in advance of (or even during) the show and then sit down and enjoy it. There are no tickets or assigned seats – or even any seats at all.
In a bit of novelty, this summer, NY Classical Theatre is presenting two variations of Oscar Wilde’s masterful comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest on alternating nights: one with traditional casting, and the other with gender-reversed casting. The same actors appear in both versions in different roles. For instance, Connie Costanzo alternates playing Cecily and Algernon (which is fitting since Cecily and Algernon ultimately end up together).
This marked my first time attending any production of The Importance of Being Earnest since the Roundabout Theatre Company’s terrific revival in 2011 starring the late Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell – which shows the extent to which gender-reversed casting has previously infiltrated the play. In the intervening years, gender-reversed casting has popped up more frequently in classical plays, as most recently seen with Glenda Jackson as King Lear on Broadway.
Based on the performances given by the all-Equity ensemble cast of Earnest, the traditionally cast version is probably fine. But the gender-reversed version is not just entertaining but surprisingly fitting and enlightening, building upon the play’s satire of Victorian behavior also becoming a satire of gender roles. With its nonsensical attitude and deft wordplay, Earnest has always marched to its own beat, and incorporating gender-reversed casting works perfectly well within its distinctively stylized universe. Interestingly, it is the men who play up their performances (including Jed Peterson’s swooning Cecily) while the females tend to be cool and suave (especially Costanzo’s androgynous Algernon).
The production (under the direction of Stephen Burdman) initially played Central Park (around 103rd Street and Central Park West) and will now move to Brooklyn Bridge Park (Pier 1) and then Carl Schurz Park (East 86th Street). At my performance, the weather was ideal and the crowd was packed. At first, I opted to sit on a park bench instead of on the grass. But when I had trouble hearing (due to the nearby sounds of the street and the lack of amplification), I moved up and sat down with everyone else. Now and then, a helicopter or plane flew by. Rather than ignore the noise, the actors paused, acknowledged the obstruction, and then moved on. Virtually no scenery was used and the cast remained standing, likely so that the sitting audience members (lacking the benefits of theater architecture, such as a raised stage or sloped seating) could easily see the actors. For each of the play’s three acts, the audience was asked to take a short walk to a new nearby location, which added to the fun. Towards the end, as it got darker outside, stagehands shined flashlights (serving as improvised footlights) in the faces of the actors.
At the end of the nearly two-hour performance, Burdman politely asked the crowd for donations to help cover the costs of the free performances. I was impressed to see that a notoriously cheap friend of mine chipped in. I imagine that many of the attendees had attended the company’s prior productions and appreciate being able to take in plays in the park in a welcoming, low-key context. This might not have been the best production of Earnest I’ve ever seen, but it was accessible, pleasant and unexpectedly inventive. Perhaps I shouldn’t wait another 15 years before catching another one of the company’s shows.