Bard, Boardwalk and, With Luck, Only a Staged Tempest
The beach, the ocean and the sky are all real, and so are most of the seagulls. The one thing the Brave New World Repertory Theater actors hope remains undeniably fake — as phony as Coney — is the thunderstorm at sea that opens Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” A full-blown tempest could scatter the audience.
“We have drums and flutes and sound effects for the thunder and lightning,” said Claire Beckman, the company’s founder and the play’s director, who also has no desire for the real thing, weather-wise.
Brave New World is bravely putting on two free performances of “The Tempest” on Saturday and Sunday right in the open air of the legendary Boardwalk and beach at Coney Island. The Brooklyn-based company likes to put on plays outside of theaters, on sites that match the landscape of the dramas. For its members, as Shakespeare said, all the world’s a stage.
They produced “On the Waterfront” on the Waterfront Museum’s barge in Red Hook, an enclave of gritty docks and rough-and-tumble longshoremen where the action of the play could have actually taken place. They set a dramatization of the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the Victorian porches of Ms. Beckman’s tree-lined street in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, which is about as close as Brooklyn can come to matching a sleepy, genteel Alabama town.
This time, the company invites audience members to imagine they are on an enchanted isle where shipwrecked fools and spirits — royal as some may be — engage in fantastical shenanigans to nourish young love and the hunger for power. In other words, the play mirrors what sometimes happens on honky-tonk Coney Island itself, without, of course, a roller coaster, sideshow or penny arcade.
The audience will be arrayed on 1,500 folding chairs along a 235-foot stretch of the Boardwalk near the New York Aquarium’s education building at 10th Street, which, conveniently, will serve as the backstage dressing rooms. The actors, nine of them members of the Actors’ Equity Association, will cavort on a tiered stage, the Boardwalk itself, and the beach.
Getting used to running in real sand can be challenging, said Angela Lewis, who plays Prospero’s servant Ariel and at one point has to sprint to the water’s edge.
Ms. Beckman, also a film actress, remembered how unsatisfied she was by a traditional “Tempest” production in 1983 in Vermont, in which she and her husband, John Morgan, had leading parts. She thought back then that it would have been enhanced by, say, truckloads of sand dumped onstage.
“This is a play about the natural world, about magic and mystery that goes along with the themes of colonialism and slavery, and we felt all these things were missing from the production we did,” she said. “If Shakespeare had had body mikes, he would have done it the way we’re doing it in Coney Island.
“We wanted to break it out in the open to get people to experience this event,” she continued, “to turns their iPods off and appreciate the beauty of Coney Island while we still have it.”
Uncommon though it is, there is an international tradition of putting on plays in what are known as site-specific locations, said Elizabeth Bradley, chairwoman of the drama department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She told of a small New York company that performed Orwell’s “1984” in front of surveillance cameras to show people how ubiquitous eavesdropping is.
“People have responded to individual theatrical texts by connecting them to natural and found environments for many, many years,” she said, adding, “The trap of these things is whether it’s simply a gimmick.”
Ms. Beckman hopes that staging the show along the Boardwalk will also give Coney Island a shot in the arm. The cluster of down-at-the heels amusement parks lost another attraction last year with the closing of Astroland. Meanwhile, residents and merchants have watched for decades as city officials and developers have dithered over plans to revive Coney Island by replacing many of the vacant lots, hot-dog stands and arcades with a new pleasure palace or two.
“Having 1,500 people coming out there is going to mean business for the Boardwalk,” she said. “Paul’s Daughter and Nathan’s will sell hot dogs and pizza.”
Converting the Boardwalk into a theater compelled her to navigate the city’s bureaucracy. She needed permits from the Buildings and Parks and Recreation Departments, of course, not to mention the cooperation of the Department of Education: In addition to random genuine seagulls, she wanted 30 seagulls played by eighth-grade dancers from the local Mark Twain Intermediate School for the Gifted and Talented.
An intense, persevering conceptualizer, Ms. Beckman has even researched what she says are the New World origins of Shakespeare’s play. She said it was inspired by the 1609 shipwreck off the coast of Bermuda of an English ship, the Sea Venture, that was on its way to Virginia. Shakespeare, she said, was likely to have been aware of it.
Remnants of a shipwreck will be evident to the audience by the rigging and sails attached to the Boardwalk rail, and the scenes will exploit Coney’s landscape. The love scene between Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, and Ferdinand, son of King Alonso of Naples, will take place on the sand — appropriate, Ms. Beckman said, for a noblewoman raised as a wild child.
All the company’s artists and designers are Brooklynites, as was evident by the bicycles they carried to a recent rehearsal. One of the cyclists, Ezra Barnes, who plays Prospero, said he liked the idea of doing theater in a place where there is not a lot of theater.
“It connects theater to the community,” he said. “Shakespeare saw theater as a popular form of entertainment for people to enjoy. He knew how to keep everyone involved. He knew he needed to get people’s attention with something, not a long talk. So that’s why the play opens with a storm.”
By JOSEPH BERGER
New York Times