Every year, for the last 26 years, hundreds of people have gathered each night to watch Shakespeare performed under the stars.
Located at the crest of Allison Hill, the Reservoir Park band shell is a stunning place. Look to your left, you see the faint outline of the downtown area. Immediately ahead, the amphitheater sits just below the rolling Blue Mountains. It’s a perspective of the city that is unparalleled if only for what it represents—an effort to bring culture back into a suffering community after the Great Depression.
The band shell, which was one of 27 erected by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, holds true to this intention with Gamut Theatre Group’s annual summer production of “Free Shakespeare in the Park.” The show, one of the largest that the company produces each year, brings economic support into Allison Hill, an often-overlooked community. Previous partnerships with local restaurants and businesses aim to show that Harrisburg, as a community, does reach this far up the hill. On any given day during rehearsals, neighborhood kids watch the production, interact with the cast and crew, and are welcomed into the group. From the grass, they learn the choreography, the monologues, and serve as the first audiences of the show that opens right at the start of the summer season.
This year will see the resurrection of one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, “Much Ado About Nothing.” The show features a kind of honesty that director David Ramon Zayas believes is central to the best of Shakespeare’s works. This production is fitting for the park because it embodies what living in a small community tends to be like.
“A part of the story that stands out to me is that there is this tight-knit family aspect and everyone is sort of getting into each other’s business in a way that is a little too familiar,” Zayas said.
The story hinges on two relationships, that of Benedick and Beatrice, and of Claudio and Hero. While Benedick and Beatrice are adversaries who bicker incessantly, friends quickly recognize that their conflict is stemmed from a secret love for each other. On the other hand, Claudio and Hero are seemingly happy, but when conflict is introduced into the relationship by another character, that bliss shatters. As the characters deal with the ensuing antics, we see the rest of the community reveling in the effects of their influence.
The plot, according to Zayas’ concept, unfolds in the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City, just after the conclusion of World War I.
“Core elements of the plot rest in this idea that, from the outset, there has been a war, and now it’s over,” Zayas explained. “So, you have a sense of relief that comes with returning home, and the things left unsaid are all coming to the surface with that return.”
Much of the conflict arises from the new world clashing with the old world and traditional roles and values being challenged with a changing post-war reality.
Despite the setting of a time past, audiences will be familiar with the overarching themes that are present within the play because they speak to the nature of human emotions. While the play is, at its roots, a comedy, Shakespeare does an exceptional job commenting on the difficulties of being part of a small community, with all of the quirks and emotions that become intertwined with it. As with most Shakespeare comedies, “Much Ado” relies on complications in relationships to present that comedy.
“The play features one relationship that is good on the outside but is secretly crumbling, and then you’ve got these other people who are terrible on the outside being brought together,” Zayas said.
It is honesty and dialogue, Zayas said, that pushes this story into nuanced comedy.
“Those moments when you are not laughing—there’s so much truth in them that when the laughter comes back, it is more rich and deep because it comes from a place that you’re able to connect to,” he said.
The dialogue supports the honesty through a witty banter that is most closely associated with the play’s title characters, Beatrice and Benedick.
“They bicker and tease each other but it’s the type of teasing between friends that happens when you really know the deepest parts of one another,” Zayas said.
Shakespeare uses the witty dialogue as a comedic display of how complicated expressions of love and commitment are and what that means in this society.
These relationships attempt to find a balance in a world where, on one hand, everything is familiar in the neighborhood as it once was, and on the other, everything has changed since the war. That’s what makes “Much Ado” a particularly fitting story to be presented in the park. Tradition and change are palpable in Reservoir Park, as a piece of land that has remained largely untouched since its acquisition, despite the urban development all around it. The park remains a tribute to both the old world and the new, and Gamut Theatre Group wades through the complicated relationships that come with developing the tight-knit community where they have continued to perform for over two decades.
Zayas is aware of this responsibility as he takes the reins for directing his first show in the park and reiterates how the massive undertaking of the production is really a bonding experience for all involved.
“You go through a truly grueling experience together and bond in a different way that you don’t always get in a regular production,” he said. “There’s a sort of battle-hardened aspect to it, and that’s very special.”
Working with the cast on these productions builds a sense of community that reaches past the production itself. The actors on stage embody it, and this keeps audiences coming back each year, eager to watch Shakespeare under the stars.
“Much Ado About Nothing,” this year’s “Free Shakespeare in the Park” from Gamut Theatre, runs May 31 to June 15 at the band shell in Reservoir Park, Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-238-4111 or visit www.gamuttheatre.org.
UPCOMING THEATER EVENTS
AT HARRISBURG’S PROFESSIONAL
At Gamut Theatre
26th Annual Free Shakespeare in the Park
“Much Ado About Nothing”
May 31 to June 15
Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Reservoir Park, Harrisburg
At Open Stage of Harrisburg
May 25 to June 16
A musical epic about the changing landscape of America at the turn of the 20th century.
Lion King KIDS summer camp
June 10 to 28
Registration for this exciting class is open for students 8 to 13.
Musical Theatre Workshop
A challenging class for the young artist looking for professional training in acting, singing and movement. Includes a trip to New York City to see “Be More Chill.”