Theater students shake it up at Brookgreenby Derrick Bracey
“This Wooden O” is your typical Shakespeare, if Shakespeare includes stage props like light-sabers, pictures of Tom Cruise, roller skates and pink water bottles full of poison. Every Wednesday this summer, Brookgreen Gardens has invited the theatre students of Coastal Carolina University to transform the works of Shakespeare into an energetic romp around the gardens.
At the end of Live Oak Allee stands a simple curtain. The backstage is a garden leading to a reflecting pool. Stage left and stage right are massive oak trees. The audience is dotted with Greek gods and mythical characters of bronze and marble. The performers dress simply, letting Shakespeare do the talking. “We wanted to keep it rustic,” says John Woodson, a teaching associate in CCU’s Department of Theatre and the co-writer/co-director of the show. “It’s not like we’re going to upstage the surroundings. How are you going to compete with 300-year-old oaks?”
The show is a medley of Shakespearean scenes and sonnets interlaced with music from the Shakespearean parody “The Boys from Syracuse.” All of this is filtered through the individual talents of the cast: actors strum ukuleles and acoustic guitars, play flutes and violins, bang drums and juggle rings as they recite Hamlet and ham it up with the audience. “We tweaked it and structured it to the students’ strengths. When I found out they could play these various instruments and could juggle, we just went with it,” Woodson says. “In a show like this, the actors are expected to break the fourth wall, to get participation and be engaging and irreverent.”
The revue’s name, “This Wooden O,” was Shakespeare’s term for London’s Globe Theatre; where many of his plays were performed. The show’s set is clutter-free, a minimalistic to allow the focus to stay on the performers. Rachael White and Jacob Singleton are the CCU BFA students who were responsible for the set design and costumes. In some productions that would mean weeks or months of work leading up to opening night. “To put it all together, we worked really hard for a week,” Singleton says. He says that since the show has run for a few weeks, “we still have work to do, but mostly we can sit back, relax and watch the actors do their thing.”
The set design consists of items like aluminum ladders wrapped with plastic ivy and an operational LED flashlight for the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. White and Singleton had to ensure they had plenty of bubble juice and wands for Ophelia’s drowning scene in their five-minute version of Hamlet. The list of quirky props goes on, and as silly as they may seem, these items keep the show barreling along. “It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun,” White says.
“This town doesn’t have a lot of summer stock,” Woodson says. “So this is the first paid acting gig for these kids. But more than that, it gives them loads of experience.”
Their first show brought in 177 people. It’s a makeshift sidewalk theatre, where the audience sits in collapsible chairs and sightseers pause along the path while taking in the gardens. “Opening night, people were just strolling along. When they saw us, they’d stop to see what was going on,” Woodson says. “They’d come closer and closer. This show is hard to walk away from once you get a taste.”
The cast is deft at not only delivering the lines of Shakespeare with competence, but they have fun with it in the process. Krista Gierlach, who plays Juliet and Ophelia, had only performed one Shakespeare play before this production. “It was fun,” she says. “But this is a whole new level of fun.”
Woodson co-wrote the script when he was with the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival. While Woodson served as the artistic/executive director of the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, the show ran there from 2001 to 2006. During that time, the show was also used as part of an outreach program to North Carolina schools. “This time, Brookgreen Gardens approached us, wanted to partner up with CCU and do something original,” Woodson says. “CCU threw their full support behind us to do it.”
The whole production came together in just three weeks. Woodson dusted off the script and teamed up with CCU’s associate professor of theatre Monica Bell to co-direct. The performers were chosen: Gierlach, Shaleigh Christine Phillips, Connor Kendall, Suzanna Grindle, Nathan Smith, Stephen Craig and Nate Louis Quetel. And they all worked together to tailor the script for the current cast.
This version has been distilled into a show that can entertain both academics and families with kids – an open invitation for everyone available on Wednesday evenings to find their way to the end of Live Oak Allee. “We were encouraged to put in our own ideas, make it our own,” Gierlach says. “And during the show, there’s a lot that’s unscripted. It’s a free-for-all. We play with the audience, mix improv into the show.”
Woodson says the production is a collaborative effort. “This show depends on the performers. It’s a patchwork quilt that alters with different stitching. Our future goal for this show is to keep it fresh, to do two different shows a day and always keep the material evolving with the players.”
This Wooden O is performed from 7 to 7:45 p.m. as part of Brookgreen Gardens’ Cool Summer Evenings program and is free with admission to the gardens. Chairs are provided by Brookgreen Gardens, if needed.