We love the idea of a neighborhood group banding together to produce not just a garage sale or summer picnic, but a classic play. What makes the event even more appealing is opening it to the entire community at no charge.
That’s exactly what’s been happening in Dayton’s South Park neighborhood since 2008 when some folks got together to stage an outdoor production of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” The following summer two residents — Phyllis Tonne and Galen Wilson — determined to give it another go, this time producing “Romeo and Juliet.”
The Shakespeare in South Park Company (SiSP) has been going strong ever since with Wilson and Tonne continuing to serve as co-producers. “We like to think we are the only neighborhood-based Shakespeare company in America, but of course we can’t prove it,” says Wilson.
Five-year SiSP veteran Wayne Wolfe says he’s grateful to know these wonderful people. “They have really created a family-type atmosphere where we all support each other.”
Not surprisingly, COVID-19 put a stop to the group’s 2020 production. Happily, they’re back at it again this summer with three free evening performances of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The comedy will be presented the weekend of Sept. 10-12 at the South Park Green, 601 Hickory St. In case of rain, the show will be moved inside to Hope Lutheran Church.
The company has no facility, no administration, and no staff. Other than storage spaces for set pieces and a bit of equipment, says Wilson, SiSP is just a concept in the minds of its producers. The shows are staged in a neighborhood park; audiences show up with blankets or lawn chairs.
Outdoor performances are a challenge, admits Wilson, because of city noise such as traffic. “So we have to be mic’d, which we would not have to be indoors,” he says. “Weather doesn’t always cooperate, but thankfully we have a rain venue in the nearby Hope Lutheran Church. We tried a matinee performance one year without thinking through the fact that much of our seating area would be in full sun all afternoon. The audience kept edging themselves into the park’s shifting areas of shade.”
The advent of Doppler radar, he notes, has been very useful. “We were in the middle of a performance one year when it became clear rain was coming, but the Doppler said we should be able to finish — and pack up — in time. We dodged the rain by about 20 minutes that night. But it’s grand to perform under the stars of a cloudless night sky with a tiny bit of coolness in the air.”
Credit: CONTRIBUTED/HANNAH RANDOLPH
Credit: CONTRIBUTED/HANNAH RANDOLPH
About this year’s play and cast
After staging most of Shakespeare’s comedies, the group decided to turn to something different this year. “We wanted to offer something light, fun, and just-for-laughs as the perfect balm for a COVID-stressed community,” says Wilson, who is directing. “‘Earnest’ fits that bill. When it was first produced in London in 1895, critics panned it as vapid because it lacked a social message. Perhaps that was why audiences loved it then and have loved it ever since.”
Oscar Wilde’s best-known play is a witty farce about two high-society friends: Algernon and Jack. Each of them has invented a convenient imaginary friend. Algernon avoids unwanted engagements in London by rushing to the bedside of his chronically ill friend in the countryside. Jack escapes his respectable country estate when he wishes to party in London in the guise of Earnest, his nonexistent and profligate brother.
Trouble ensues when each falls in love with a young lady — Jack with Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, Algernon with Jack’s 18-year-old ward Cecily — while each is pretending to be Jack’s errant brother Earnest,. They discover too late that the women’s real passion is for the name Earnest itself.
Wilson says while Shakespeare in South Park isn’t Shakespeare this season, it’s definitely South Park. Six of the nine cast members are from the neighborhood; so is the entire production crew. Brian Ressler (Algernon) returns for his seventh season. Amelia Merithew (Cecily) and Gabby Kennedy (Gwendolen) began their SiSP careers as child extras eight seasons ago; both are principals this year.
Amanda Korb makes her SiSP debut as the legendarily imperious Lady Bracknell (“Never speak disrespectfully of Society. Only people who can’t get into it do that”). Elizabeth Horner (Miss Prism) also appears on stage for the first time after many years as a cast member’s real-life mom. Newcomer Will Williams (Jack) learned about auditions from a South Park kickball friend. Rounding out the cast are SiSP veterans Scot Randolph (Merriman), who is also in charge of set construction; Wayne Wolfe (Rev. Chasuble) and John Wysong (Lane).
Susan Robert, who has acted in or directed several SiSP shows, appreciates the fact that everyone is nice. “All the drama in this company is on stage,” she says. Korb says it’s been a wonderful way to meet neighbors. ”I’m not great at small talk at parties, but the play creates a natural way to get to know people,” she says. “The incredible amount of thought and creativity that goes into the production has blown me away. Everyone contributes!”
Co-producer Tonne leads an entr’acte of South Park’s neighborhood children posing as 19th-century grammar school scholars singing English songs. The group will entertain the audience while actors transform the stage from Algernon’s London apartment to Jack’s country estate.
“Theater of the era (1895) was expected to make audiences think seriously about social issues,” notes Wllson, who says theater of any era succeeds by crafting events that cause characters to change attitudes or behaviors and challenge the audience to do the same. “Shows lure the audience to identify with characters, love the hero, and despise the villain. ‘Earnest’ does none of these things. Its principal characters are deeply flawed, but they are not supposed to instruct or inspire the audience. They are here simply to entertain us and make us laugh.”
Part of the attraction of this year’s play is that it was written in 1895, near the end of South Park’s 20-year building boom in which most of the neighborhood was constructed. “‘Earnest’ and South Park are contemporaries,” says Wilson. “Because South Park is a historic district, we were able to obtain many props from within the neighborhood, including a chair that might, in 1895, have been in the same Dayton house from which we borrowed it 126 years later!”
HOW TO GO
What: Oscar Wilde’s comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” presented by Shakespeare in South Park
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, Saturday. Sept. 11 and Sunday, Sept. 12
Where: South Park Green, 601 Hickory St., Dayton. In case of rain: Hope Lutheran Church, 500 Hickory St. Masks required indoors.
Admission: Free with donations gratefully accepted
Seating: Bring your lawn chair or blanket and bug spray
For more info: (937) 222-7324, www.historicsouthpark.org or www.facebook.com/shakespeareinsouthpark2021
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