Fenway Park has seen a lot of non-baseball events over the years. The iconic ballpark has played host to college and pro hockey, Bruce Springsteen, and a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But not Shakespeare. Yet.
The Bard and baseball make for strange bedfellows, to borrow a coinage from “The Tempest.” Commonwealth Shakespeare Company looks to change this with an unprecedented event Friday: an evening of Shakespeare, staged just above the Red Sox dugout.
As far as the troupe can reckon, it’ll be the first professional Shakespeare performance in a major league ballpark. But the setting, where the shouts of fans and the cries of vendors typically fill the air, could be just right for the world’s best-loved — and perhaps most-feared, among the unconverted — playwright.
“Shakespeare was a populist writer. He wasn’t just an elite, white, upper-class writer. He wrote for the masses,” says CSC founding artistic director Steven Maler. “There were brawls in barrooms about interpretations of Shakespeare.”
As Maler makes his case, he sits in an otherwise deserted row of seats on the first-base side of the field, just a few rows behind the Sox dugout. The weekday morning is overcast, but the impeccably manicured grass on the field still seems to sparkle from this vantage point. The Green Monster looms as a vivid backdrop. Maler has just enjoyed an unusual view for a fan, standing on the field briefly and peering right inside the empty dugout, which his actors will pass through when entering or exiting the stage. (The phone to the bullpen, though, will offer no relief if someone forgets a line.)
“Shakespeare at Fenway” features a lineup of The Bard’s heavy hitters — scenes from such well-loved plays as “Hamlet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” There will also be a handful of songs, including some that were inspired by Shakespeare (including selections from “Kiss Me, Kate” and “West Side Story”) and others adapted from song lyrics found in plays like “Twelfth Night.”
Maler will direct a cast of 20 actors, most with resumes including work on Broadway and in film. Many have appeared in CSC’s free performances on Boston Common, but there are some company newcomers as well. Christian Coulson (“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”), Max von Essen (“Evita” on Broadway), and Mike O’Malley (“Glee”) are among the performers.
The roster of scenes was still coming together about a week before the performance, and rehearsal time was limited. The tech crew wasn’t due to get into the space (and attend to such details as building a stage and hanging the lighting rig) until the day before the show. Maler says the event originated about three years ago with a remark by then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino to Red Sox principal owner John Henry that he needed some Shakespeare at the park. (Henry also owns the Globe.)
Veteran Broadway actress Kerry O’Malley, a New Hampshire native (and sister of Mike), will sing a song and reprise a scene from CSC’s production this summer of “Twelfth Night.” It won’t be her first time on the field: She sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a Sox game last year and just recently took a swing at “O Canada” when the Toronto Blue Jays were in town.
“These plays can play anywhere. You don’t need to be on a stage in the dark,” she says in a telephone interview. “And Fenway is such a magical, beautiful setting that I think there’s going to be some tremendous alchemy that happens by being there.”
O’Malley likens Fenway to the “wooden O” Shakespeare cited in the prologue to “Henry V,” in reference to the Globe Theatre, where many of his plays were performed.
Much as that famous speech exhorts audiences to use their imagination and create “the vasty fields of France” onstage, the actors on Friday will rely on Shakespeare’s rich language to set the scene. The stage, to be built about a foot above the dugout, will be mostly bare, and uncovered. Lighting will be basic. Costumes will be subtle.
Though the performance is an expensive production (Maler says it will be “very good” if CSC breaks even on the night), the company says the spare approach is a design decision meant to take best advantage of the unique venue.
“With most concerts that come in, they take over the space and redefine it for their event. We’re really trying to incorporate the ballpark into our event,” production manager Jo Williams says. “We have this gorgeous, huge backdrop of the ballpark. How do we preserve that feeling of being at Fenway Park — which is something we really wanted to do — but still create a theater space?”
“Shakespeare at Fenway” comes on the heels of CSC’s 19th summer of performing in Boston. The company is billing this event as the kickoff to its 20th season. Though some complimentary tickets were offered (and gobbled up within hours of becoming available), most are priced at $35 — far less than it would cost to sit in the same seats for a Red Sox game, but a break from CSC’s practice of offering up free Shakespeare for the people at Boston Common.
Maler quips that his troupe will only mount a show at Fenway every 20 years. But he would like to see this event start a trend.
“My hope is that it’s something that sweeps the country,” he says, “and we have great evenings of Shakespeare at ballparks across the country.”