After being stuck inside for several months, performing Shakespeare at the Arnold Arboretum energized actor Omar Robinson in a way he hadn’t expected. In a pivotal scene from “King Lear,” set on the Arboretum’s Hemlock Hill, Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, rails against being branded “base" and "bastardy.”
“I didn’t have to deny or fake any part of my humanity,” Robinson says. “Being in touch with nature right there brought out something kind of raw.”
Robinson’s speech from “King Lear” is one of 10 pieces Actors' Shakespeare Project filmed in the Arboretum, to be presented as “The Nature of Shakespeare” in two online episodes Oct. 2 and Oct. 17. Each episode will be about 30 minutes long, with 20 minutes of Shakespeare and 10 minutes of comments from the Arnold Arboretum staff. (Registration is required but viewing is free, although donations are welcome. Go to https://arboretum.harvard.edu or www.actorsshakespeareproject.org.) The episodes are a continuation of a collaboration between ASP and the Arboretum that began with the outdoor presentations of “Fog x Macbeth” and “Pride and Prejudice,” and was to continue with “Henry V” before it was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Between 1,400 and 1,500 people came to the Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden for ‘Pride and Prejudice’ last year,” says Sheryl L. White, coordinator of visitor engagement and exhibitions at the Arboretum. “While that’s not possible right now, the virtual option allows us to reach even more people all over the world.”
Christopher Edwards, who directs “The Nature of Shakespeare,” says he “wandered through the Arboretum and stopped at the places that spoke to me,” while thinking about a selection of sonnets and speeches that might work together as a “medley of Shakespeare.”
“I did steer him toward places I thought would be evocative,” says White.
“We wanted the Arboretum to be less of a backdrop and more of a character to emphasize the connection between nature and the words,” says Edwards, ASP’s artistic director.
For example, Doug Lockwood plays Friar Lawrence from “Romeo and Juliet” on Peters Hill summit. Edwards and White asked horticulturalist Laura Mele to talk about the space she oversees. “It allows an opportunity to talk about the dichotomy of plants that serve as medicine that can heal or harm," Edwards says. "Laura does today what Friar Lawrence was doing in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ ”
Austin de Besche, an experienced videographer and founding board member of ASP, filmed the scenes, which include sonnets and monologues from “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “As You Like It,” and “The Tempest,” and feature ASP actors including Robinson, Lockwood, Paige Clark, Jade Guerra, and Edwards.
“I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for film,” says Edwards, “but I also appreciate the simplicity and humanity of these words.”
Upending Asian stereotypes
Christine Toy Johnson’s auditions have occasionally devolved into awkward exchanges in which she’s been encouraged to embrace Asian stereotypes rather than three-dimensional characters.
The busy TV, film, and musical theater actor (whose work in the national tour of “Come From Away” was interrupted by the pandemic) has turned some of those conversations into a 25-minute made-for-Zoom play called “Empress Mei Li Lotus Blossom,” in which an actress from Teaneck, N.J., adopts the persona of a Chinese film star to get the Broadway recognition she’s been waiting for. The live performance will be presented by Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage Company Friday at 8 p.m. and made available for viewing through Sept. 29 ($15, www.greaterbostonstage.org).
“I never set out to make a comedy,” says Johnson, “but I ultimately felt that this subject matter should be told through a comedic lens. It’s all based in reality, and the slightly satirical edge allows me to show what it’s like for someone who looks like me to surf the expectations and stereotypes as an actor and writer.”
In Johnson’s play, as a producer pitches what she hopes will be a boffo box office hit, she mines racist stereotypes in an increasingly uncomfortable business meeting. The actress is eager for the starring role, but at what cost?
“The play was originally set in a restaurant but making the transition to Zoom allowed us to tighten the focus,” says Johnson, who is also directing. “I write cinematically and am drawn to magical realism, and all of that fed into the conversation with the actors in rehearsal.”
“Empress Mei Li Lotus Blossom” was originally written nearly a decade ago, but Johnson says that even though she has been an advocate for diversity for many years (serving on the board of Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, the Dramatists Guild, and as part of the leadership of Actors’ Equity), the events of the past several months have made audiences more interested in hearing different perspectives.
“I don’t want to lecture people,” says Johnson. “We all need a laugh right now, but by poking fun at the issue we can see the truth underneath. I’m a firm believer that theater has the power to shift our perceptions of who we are and what we can do.”
Retracing a Black soldier’s steps
Actor Kadahj Bennett takes audiences back in time as a Black Watertown barber who enlisted as a private in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War. The performances of “The Charles W. Lenox Experience,” which run Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from Sept. 26-Nov. 8, are part of New Repertory Theatre’s Watertown Historical Moving plays, a partnership with the Watertown Free Library and the Watertown Historical Society that invites audiences outdoors to see and learn from Lenox’s story. The play is written by Ken Green and directed by Michael Ofori. Audiences will be limited to 15 for each performance and masks are required. Tickets are $20 at www.newrep.org.
Private performances of Poe
Olivia D’Ambrosio Scanlon, formerly the artistic director of Bridge Repertory Theater, has been working in Worcester for the past year and is launching Massachusetts’s first Actors' Equity-approved indoor theater-going experience during the pandemic, with private performances of an “Edgar Allan Poe Double Header” (consisting of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado”). Scanlon is directing and performing in the production for the Hanover Theatre Repertory Oct. 1-25. Performances can be booked either at the BrickBox Theater in Worcester or in your own home. At the theater, audiences of no more than 20 people will be socially distanced in cabaret-style seating. To help create the mood, tables will be set with prosecco and dark chocolates. The performances cost $2,500 ($125 per person for an audience of 20). To book, call Lisa Condit at 508-471-1767 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.