Something Magical

H ow do you celebrate a tenth birthday? If it’s Shakespeare in South Park (SiSP) you will have learned a lot and grown up as the only neighborhood-based Shakespeare troop in America (probably).  SiSP was founded in 2008 on a whim, with a put together by-the-seat-of-their-pants production of Much Ado About Nothing that summer with […]

Shakespeare in South Park returns with Much Ado


Actors Heather Atkinson (Hero), Jene Shaw (Ursula), and Katie Paeg (under table as Beatrice).

By Jacqui Theobald

How do you celebrate a tenth birthday? If it’s Shakespeare in South Park (SiSP) you will have learned a lot and grown up as the only neighborhood-based Shakespeare troop in America (probably).

SiSP was founded in 2008 on a whim, with a put together by-the-seat-of-their-pants production of Much Ado About Nothing that summer with Galen Wilson as co-producer.

SiSP might never have had a second season, except that co-producer Phyllis Tonne noted in 2009 that, “something magical happened in South Park last summer and I would like to see it happen again.”

The magic happens because of the enthusiasm everyone has. As usual, nearly half the cast and all the production crew is from the South Park neighborhood. Experienced actors alongside newcomers, working to memorize lines together. It is very egalitarian. There are no stars, there are no small roles.

The three performances are to be held on the South Park Green in the 600 block of Hickory Street. The audience is asked to bring their own lawn chairs or blankets.

But what if it rains? Part of the learning experience has been to make an arrangement with Hope Lutheran Church, right across the street from the venue on Hickory.

Every year, SiSP gets a birthday present of sorts. They’ve worked to install better lighting, creating a stage among the trees. The sound system has been amplified to do its job, projecting over the sound of street traffic. This year a twenty-inch high stage has been installed, improving sight lines.

For the last several years, Susan Robert has been the director. Her first connection however, was auditioning as an actor. She likes the “Let’s put on a show!” attitude.

“We always have some children in the cast,” she says. “It has been wonderful to see them grow up for the last ten years feeling comfortable with Shakespeare. They often take that knowledge into a classroom without the usual fear and boredom.”

“Even after seven years, I never tire of bringing the audience joy through Shakespeare” a high school senior said.

Of course, most theatre people have a day job. Robert is a substitute teacher so she never knows where she will be called to work each day. And which does she like better, theatre or teaching? “Well,” she says, “You can tell both of them to sit down and shut up.”

In contemporary times, some Shakespearian productions have been reset from their origins. Venues can be changed, and acts can be shortened, but only original dialogue can be used. In this case, the men returning from battle are in are in post-World War II America rather than 16th Century Italy. Wilson notes that the incorporation of the US Army Air Corps and the backdrop of a USO (United Services Organization) canteen are an acknowledgement of Dayton’s historic military ties.

All over the country, during wartime and shortly after, USO canteens provided an opportunity for returning service men and well-chaperoned local young women to meet over coffee and doughnuts or at a dance to talk. In actuality, many lasting relationships were established through these USO encounters.

The play’s the thing…
Much Ado, like most of Shakespeare’s comedies, is dependent on an overly-complex plot. There are the requisite elements: Dukes Don Pedro and Don John, soldiers returning from war, lovers Benedick and Beatrice plus Claudio and Hero. Of course, there is a masquerade ball, giving further credence to wrong assumptions and providing an opportunity for artful and unconvincing disguises. There is fake news (Hero isn’t really dead), and mistaken identities. Verge and Dogberry, a pair of not-quite-bumbling watchmen, actually do know what is going on.  Don’t you wish you knew someone named Dogberry? 

Under Robert’s direction there is lots of activity, foot chases, confusing relationships, eavesdropping, and concealed characters.  Focus on who belongs together and trust that, in the end, everyone ends up with their intended partner.

The principal cast includes the two dukes, Jim Davidson as Don Pedro and company founder Galen Wilson as Don John. It’s Shakespeare, so they have to disagree. Josh Richardt as returning soldier Benedick is in his fifth season with Shakespeare in South Park. Long-time SiSP actress Katie Paeg is Beatrice, Benedick’s love interest. This pair amuse themselves (and the audience) with never-ending repartee. Shakespeare described this as their “merry war,” the key to unlocking SiSP’s production. It’s not a serious war—it’s funny!

The other lovers central to the story are Claudio, played by Paul Dunn and well-known local actress Heather Atkinson as Hero.  The cast is rounded out by Chris Petree as Borachio, Tamar Fishbein as Conrade, Jeannine Geise as Margaret and Jene Shaw as Ursula, the two ladies maids,  veteran Dayton-area actor Mark Reuter as Dogberry, John Wysong as Verge, and fresh from playing in the recent “Old Case Files” drama at the courthouse, Bud Maylum as Friar.

What better way to relax from the onslaught of autumn responsibilities than to sit outdoors in the warm evening air and be reminded that it really is Much Ado about Nothing.

Much Ado About Nothing will be staged by Shakespeare in South Park at South Park Green, 600 block of Hickory St., Dayton on Friday Sept. 14 and Saturday Sept. 15, at 7 p.m., and Sunday Sept. 16, 3 p.m. In event of rain, it will be staged across the street at Hope Lutheran Church. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/southparkshakespeare

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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