After construction of Essex Crossing bumped it from its home last year, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot will relaunch just three blocks away, in a parking lot behind the Clemente Soto Velez Center. From July 9 to 26, The Drilling Company, led by Hamilton Clancy of Orange Is the New Black, will imagine “As You Like It” in a “Steampunk paradise,” and from July 30 to August 15, they’ll be doing free performances of “Macbeth.”
At this point, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot is a 20-year tradition on the Lower East Side. But if you still don’t think a patch of asphalt is a suitable stand-in for the Globe Theatre, you may want to travel to Carroll Gardens to see Smith Street Stage do “Henry IV” in leafy, seductively lit Carroll Park.
The troupe has upgraded since its first production in 2010, when it performed “Romeo and Juliet” in jeans and t-shirts (an audience member tried to break up the first fight scene, thinking the actors were hooligans). This time, there’ll be no mistaking the cast members, since they’ll be dressed in full Renaissance garb with shiny long swords and battleaxes to go with the corsets and doublets. What might be cause for a quick double take is the casting of female actors in major male roles – such as Hannah Sloat in the role of Prince Hal and Jane May as King Henry.
“It seems different this year because it’s such a masculine play. It’s so male heavy that I was getting frustrated when these amazingly talented women would come in and I would say we can’t use them,” said Beth Ann Hopkins, artistic director and founder of the company, about what led to the casting of female actors in some of the main male leads. Hopkins felt it was time to modernize and cast based on talent, rather than gender.
“It’s great that there are different ideas of what being a strong woman is,” said Hopkins, explaining that it’s important for young girls and adults alike to be able to say, “I could do that if I wanted to. I don’t have to be in a big, poufy gown and have a prince save me. I could be the prince who saves someone else.”
The prince and the rest of the cast have been rehearsing for a month to more fully embody their multiple roles. Understanding and capturing each character is especially important because the plays will be performed in repertory on alternate evenings, with both parts one and two performed back-to-back on select dates.
Show director Joby Earle and executive director of the company Jonathan Hopkins (who plays Falstaff) adapted “Henry IV” so that each play is an hour and a half in length. The condensation required some concessions, such as cutting out the exploits of the rebel army. Instead, the focus is on the story of the carousing Prince Hal, who must decide if he will embrace or shirk his duties as prince – a decision that becomes more imperative as his country is embroiled in civil war.
Beyond having entertained the public for hundreds of years, “Henry IV” was chosen by Earle because he was inspired by the story of a country on the verge of “deep and systemic” changes.
“It gives a window into common, everyday people who are swept away by the decisions of these great people,” he said. “It’s the story of a young man journeying into adulthood, it’s the story of a country in transition from one way of thinking to another, it shows the patriotic path towards war, but also shows the consequences of that act. And it shows how much fun it can be to be in a bar at 2 a.m. with all of your friends.”
During the preview last night Earle was impressed by the “spirit” of the actors. “It takes a lot of gumption to come out into this park and demand to be seen and to focus an audience’s attention amidst all of the distractions of New York,” he said. “When that happens successfully it’s a transporting experience.”
You can have that experience for yourself by checking out the schedule of performances, running until July 19, here. Make sure to arrive 30 minutes before the show to grab a seat as there are a limited number of chairs, or bring your own. The stage is located at the east end of Carroll Park in Brooklyn, along Smith Street. Entrance is free, but donations are always welcome.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect Joby Earle’s position as show director and Jonathan Hopkins’ position as executive director of the company.