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The taming of ‘The Tempest’

The return of Free Shakespeare on the Common this summer presented a range of post-pandemic challenges, including how to shorten a masterpiece

From left: John Lam, Nora Eschenheimer, John Douglas Thompson, and director Steven Maler in rehearsal for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's production of "The Tempest."
From left: John Lam, Nora Eschenheimer, John Douglas Thompson, and director Steven Maler in rehearsal for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's production of "The Tempest."Evgenia Eliseeva

After more than two decades’ experience producing Free Shakespeare on the Common, mounting “The Tempest” should have been a breeze.

But this year, all expectations have been turned upside down. Even though Commonwealth Shakespeare Company hired designers and most of the cast last year, before the pandemic forced it to put everything on hold, uncertainty around public health and safety guidelines made it impossible to plan, let alone rehearse.

“We made a crazy leap of faith to go forward in late spring, once we had approval from the City of Boston,” says Steven Maler, cofounder and artistic director of CSC, whose production of “The Tempest” runs July 21-Aug. 8. “But even as the situation continues to change, we have to focus on measures designed to ensure the safety of our actors and production team as well as our audiences.”

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The first step for Maler was trimming Shakespeare’s five-act play to a tight 100 minutes, to allow for an intermission-less performance that would minimize crowd interactions.

“In a way, 100 minutes feels like the length of a feature film, so it should be a comfortable amount of time to sit. But the shortness of the text doesn’t make it any easier to stage,” says Maler.

Maler has some experience shortening Shakespeare’s dramas without sacrificing any dramatic urgency. “Hamlet 360,” his breathtaking virtual reality film of that tragic play was only 60 minutes long and maintained all of that story’s pathos and tension.

“Every time you begin directing a play you think about the story you want to tell,” Maler says. “I had already made some cuts to the script for the Zoom reading we did with the cast last summer, but so much depends on having actors in the room, hearing how things sound and how the narrative flows.”

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While Maler works with the company on the script, production manager Jenna Worden is focused on making sure everyone feels safe and comfortable. Backstage, the company has rented an additional trailer to spread actors out when they are not onstage. All company members are vaccinated and undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. They also wear masks in the rehearsal room; backstage quick changes have been reduced; and the handoff of props includes careful sanitizing.

On the audience side, although tickets are still free, reservations are required, with timed arrivals and a limit on the number of people who can gather.

“We’ve hired a full front-of-house crew this year,” says Worden, “who will check people in at designated entry points. The audience area will be roped off, and our staff will usher people to an area.” This year, audiences can pay $5 to reserve a lawn chair that they can carry to their spot or donate $150 for a pair of lawn chairs in the section close to the stage. (Details at https://commshakes.org.)

To meet Actors’ Equity regulations, the cast members’ arrivals to rehearsals had to be staggered. With Broadway reopening in September, Miguel Cervantes, who had been slated to play Ariel, the spirit who serves island ruler Prospero, had to drop out. He is headed to New York to take on the title role in “Hamilton.” John Lam, principal dancer with the Boston Ballet, has stepped in, and Maler says the way Lam expresses himself through his body is providing unexpected insights into the relationship between Prospero and his servant.

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“No matter what edits I make, actors bring so much into the room,” Maler says. “Rehearsals are a process of accretion, accumulation, and evolution.”

At the center of the production is award-winning actor John Douglas Thompson, who returns to CSC to play Prospero after appearing in “Romeo and Juliet” in 1997.

“When I was first thinking about the story we wanted to tell, I was thinking of this as a kind of homecoming for John,” Maler says. “But we’ve all been changed by this past year, which was full of a call to action around social justice, the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic, and the isolation and loneliness of quarantine.”

“The Tempest,” Maler says, is a play about forgiveness, and what’s at stake when you ask for it or give it.

In the first half of the play we meet Prospero when he is driven by rage, nursing resentment for more than a decade while isolated on an island. But in the second half, Maler says, Prospero realizes that if he doesn’t let go of his anger he will destroy himself and everything he loves.

“John told me he wanted to understand how he might emerge as a better person on the other side of the pandemic,” Maler says. “I hope that’s true for all of us, and I know ‘The Tempest’ serves as a guide for just that.”

‘Memories and Dreams’ at Double Edge Farm

Double Edge Theatre’s annual summer spectacle returns July 17-Aug. 8 with “Memories and Dreams” at The Farm in Ashfield. The outdoor performance moves through various spaces across the farm with the ensemble’s imaginative combination of acrobatics, movement, storytelling, and puppetry. This year’s spectacle is described as “a mosaic of myths and story.” (Tickets $25-$40 at https://doubleedgetheatre.org.)

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Bedsheet art

Peter Schumann, the 87-year-old founder and artistic director of Bread & Puppet Theater, continues to make art that rails against consumerism, lately speaking out about the commercial development threatening the Fort Point artist community. During the pandemic, king-size bedsheets discarded by a hotel became a source of inspiration for him. “Bedsheet Mitigations,” on display at Midway Gallery, 15 Channel Center St., through Aug. 31 and cohosted by the gallery and Artspeech, is a series of paintings, using the sheets as canvases, that explore many of the issues his theater company dramatizes. Combined with these “mitigation” images will be several other bedsheet pieces on display at Midway, gleaned from Schumann’s new “Crucifixion” series. (Details at midwaygallery.org and artspeech.org.)