Bringing The Bard to the Boroughs — The Public Theater's Mobile Shakespeare Unit Performs Throughout the City

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07 Dec 2013

Samantha Soule
Samantha Soule
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The Public Theater takes free Shakespeare to prisons, homeless shelters, at-risk-youth centers, senior centers and rec centers as a part of their Mobile Shakespeare Unit.

Shakespeare's Benedict and Beatrice, encircled by 75 senior citizens, recently dipped and dived through their little love dance on a basketball court, three stories high at the St. John's Recreation Center in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Reviews from the elderly and the entertained started rolling in even before the eight actors (covering for a cast of 15) had struck the set, stored their costumes and piled it all in the minivan for the next day's Shakespeare somewhere in the five boroughs.

Aasha Abdill had "a great time" and was altogether "glad I took some time off from work for this." Edna Rembert, a regular at the center, learned of it from flyers on the bulletin board downstairs and wasn't about to let another merry band of players infiltrate her home turf without her being there. Mike Speights got his information from his wife and liked "the modern adaptation, because it made it more palatable."

Doris Davis, candidly, loved it all. "I've seen Much Ado About Nothing before, but this time it was up close and personal. I felt like I was a part of it. It was superb. Such a good group of actors! They belong on Broadway. I'd put 'em there if I had the bucks."

Save your money, Doris. Most of these actors have already had Broadway exposure; if not Broadway, then certainly Off-Broadway and television: Benedict, Michael Braun, had a good ride on the Tony-winning War Horse; his Beatrice, Samantha Soule, did Dinner at Eight on Broadway; the fatuously funny Dogberry, Lucas Caleb Rooney, got directed by Mike Nichols in The Country Girl.

For Soule, bringing Shakespeare to people who might never have been exposed to him before is not cultural missionary work. It rekindles the initial impulse to become an actor. "We got into doing plays as kids because it's make believe," she recalled. "It's 'Let's play a game. Let's play!' There's a sense that it's going to be different every day. Then, when you get into the professional world, into film and television, everything gets older and sort of cut-and-dry, and there's more distance from the play. Getting to do this, with everybody in a van again, makes you go back to the feeling that you're just making it up, that's it's play school again."

And you don't always score on a basketball court. "Sometimes it's cafeterias, sometimes dining halls," Braun noted. "Tomorrow we're going to Rikers. Every day it's a little different."

A circle of folding chairs three rows deep contained the imagination of actors and audiences alike, but within that restricted boundary was some fun. Soule has been known to crawl under the folding chairs of patrons, and Braun frequently weaves through the aisles, concealing his face with branches of tree leaves. On one occasion, he plopped himself down in an empty chair and began playing the scene to the stranger beside him, usually staring stoically ahead. "It's a blast," he admitted. "It's the first time I've been in a play where we really can't ignore the audience and think of our performances as something separate from the people that we're playing to."


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