Taking it to the street

The evening temperature last Monday was a balmy 75 or so — just perfect for my wife and me to enjoy a jaunty walk with our chocolate Lab, Duke.

We decided to head downtown because there was to be a special outdoor performance of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" in a parking lot behind the Water Street Cafe near the Plaza in Ashland. And since there was a Duke in the play, we thought our dog might find the experience something he could relate to as well.

Shakespeare in a parking lot. For one night only. For free. Go figure. It sounded like a great idea. Some of the cast, production staff and helpers would be drawn from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival just up the street. Even more intriguing.

It was easy to find the performance. A loop of pickup trucks wrapped around the parking lot creating a three-quarter stage area. The trucks provided raised places for some of the audience to sit above the chairs and blankets where the rest of the audience sat. One truck was parked right on the stage and served as the boxwood where Sir Toby and company hid while Malvolio recited his soliloquy.

Looking around at the audience, I saw young people, old people, little people and Shakespeare festival actors. Among the little people were our two youngest grandchildren, who are 2 1/2 and 1. Our daughter-in-law brought them down in a stroller and had snagged a front-row spot next to a couple of families with their own tiny theater-goers.

A couple of people who were wandering by stopped out of curiosity. "I think it's Shakespeare," one of them said.

The play was presented as written, from memory. The actors held microphones which amplified their voices with varying degrees of success. But no one seemed to mind.

The clown Feste was portrayed by an actor wearing a big red nose and a hat. In the play, Feste has some great songs. The actor sang — beautifully — accompanying himself on guitar and intoning snippets from old Beastie Boys tunes. He even crooned a few bars of "Stardust," by Hoagy Carmichael.

The stage itself was laid out by a tarp on the ground, behind which stood a fairly large wooden wall. The actors had their costume changes behind the wall, grabbed a snack or picked up a prop. Some entrances and exits occurred there, too.

Malvolio made most of his dramatic arrivals and departures on a golf cart which was parked behind the wall. The actors also came in and out from an aisle that was kept clear directly in front of the stage. This put them right amongst the audience, right where the beer, sandwiches and cookies were for sale. Egad!

It was not a stretch to imagine how closely the atmosphere of this production might have resembled the shows at the Globe Theater back in Shakespeare's day. The groundlings would be talking to each other, eating, drinking, laughing and cheering on the good guys and hissing at the villains. I didn't hear any cheering or hissing from the parking lot crowd, but lots of people — including many children — laughed at the lines and at the broad comedy of the visual antics.

Traditionally the evening of Jan. 5 is considered the twelfth night and the beginning of the twelfth day of Christmas — Epiphany — the following day. People in medieval times feasted that night while they took down their Christmas decorations. The twelve days of Christmas were magical days and fostered celebrations of both the sacred and the silly — the twelfth night being the zaniest.

Historians believe that Shakespeare wrote "Twelfth Night" fully aware of what it meant to his kinsmen and included large doses of madness, love, cross-dressing, mistaken identities and wise fools to add to the play's enjoyment.

In keeping with the topsy-turvy mood of the time of year, Shakespeare subtitled his play, "What You Will." The parking lot folks used that as the title for their version, and judging from the performance, the play still works its magic.

We left early since Duke turned out to be more interested in the food the people next to us were eating than he was in the trials and tribulations of Duke Orsino, Olivia, Viola and Sir Toby. As we were walking up the steps toward the Bowmer Theatre, we met two young men on their way down, balancing on the bannister.

"Is there anything cultural happening anywhere tonight?" one of them asked.

Well, there's this play in a parking lot ...

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