The Other Shakespeare in the Park

| 17 Feb 2015 | 05:08

Hudson Warehouse prepares for their 2014 summer season of free plays in Riverside Park

Upper West Side Nicholas Martin-Smith has a penchant for blood-soaked battles, graphic throat-slitting and slow, lingering deaths.

Luckily, the founder and producing artistic director of Upper West Side theater company Hudson Warehouse has had ample opportunities to produce bloody death scenes. The company has staged more than 15 of Shakespeare's plays, including "Romeo and Juliet,"" Richard III" and "King Lear." In some productions, the use of blood during battles and death scenes warrants a warning to the audience that they're sitting in 'splatter zones.'

"It's so visceral and it reads so clearly," said Martin-Smith about the on-stage blood. "It marks death. It's not just enough to have someone go 'Ahh!' and die. There's a reason for it. It's character."

Since its inception in 2004, the theater company has operated almost entirely outdoors, at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park, where audience members sit on the monument's stone steps, and its upcoming season is no different. The first production of the summer, Shakespeare's "King John," kicks off on June 5, which, like every Hudson Warehouse show, is free to the public.

"I saw a play here before I acted here," said David Palmer Brown, who plays King John. "I thought, man this is a hard place to play. But when I got into playing it, I love it?It's really a community. Our audience is local, and yet, though we're doing Shakespeare, we fill up those stairs all the time."

Brown, like many of Hudson Warehouse's company members, has years of professional training and acting experience, which is partly what lends the productions their legitimacy, along with the elaborate staging and direction. Among the company members is Jared Kirby, a fight director who has staged elaborate battle scenes and realistic death sequences.

"What I love is that people hear there's going to be free theater in the park," said Susane Lee, assistant artistic director, "So if they think it's free, and they're kind of dismissive, and they show up and they see all the wardrobes and the props and they see all our actors. Then they see we're packed."

Hudson Warehouse is not the city's only theater company offering free, outdoor performances of classics; the Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, with its infamous long lines for tickets and its A-list actors on the bill is among them. But Martin-Smith sees Hudson Warehouse as an answer to the inaccessibility of both the Public's popular shows and pricey Broadway productions.

"Parents bring their children, who've never had any exposure [to Shakespeare] whatsoever," said Martin-Smith. "Families who can't possibly afford tickets to see something on Broadway, let alone Kenneth Branagh."

Performing outdoors does offer its unique challenges. Actors contend with noise from both road and air traffic from the Henry Hudson Parkway and frequent helicopter flyovers. Save for the cover of a few bushes, there's no backstage, so actors change costumes in partial sight of the audience. And because they perform in a public park, pedestrians often cross the path of the stage between scenes. Once, an actor's shoe flew off and a boy in the audience ran to pick it up.

Over 11 seasons, Hudson Warehouse has remained an Upper West Side company, with deep roots in the community. Audience members come back year after year, Lee said, and have come to know her.

"I know people's faces," said Lee. "I know their names. Welcoming the audience and taking care of them and seating them brings a lot of rapport with the community."

Now, through a partnership with the Goddard Riverside Bernie Wohl Center, a nonprofit community arts center on Columbus Avenue, Hudson Warehouse is even more deeply embedded in the neighborhood. They just completed a year-long playwriting workshop with fourth and fifth grade students in the center's after-school program, which will continue in the next school year, and will bring their productions to the center's indoor auditorium as the Bernie Wohl Center's first resident theater company.

"What the partnership also does is it makes our own arts programs much better," said Susan Macaluso, the director of community arts programs for Goddard Riverside. "We feel it's strengthening our whole community, because we can bring together individual families across all economic barriers. It's not for one group. It's for everyone."

Martin-Smith thinks his company offers experiences that other professional companies in the city can't, and the open-air environment allows that. The audience is encouraged to bring food-once, an audience member ordered a pizza to his seat-and the actors find themselves improvising when a helicopter or an errant shoe go flying.

And of course, there's the blood.

Recently, Lee and Martin-Smith saw another production of "King Lear," which they said was acted well, but was missing some realism.

"He got his eyes gouged out, and there was no blood" said Lee. "Everyone who knows Shakespeare is anticipating these deaths. They know [Gloucester] gets his eyes gouged out. They know Mercutio is going to die. They know Tybalt is going to get killed. They know these deaths and they kind of want to see how we're going to do it."

------ IF YOU GO: HUDSON WAREHOUSE What: Hudson Warehouse's 11th summer season includes productions of "King John,"" The Importance of Being Earnest" and "The Winter's Tale." When: King John: June 5 through June 29; The Importance of Being Earnest: July 3 through July 27; The Winter's Tale: July 31-August 24 Where: North patio of Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument W. 89th Street and Riverside Drive Hours: Thursday through Sunday nights at 6:30 p.m. Recommended arrival time: 6:00 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. Free admission