Outdoor Medicine for the Play-Starved Soul

Outdoor Medicine for the Play-Starved Soul

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The emailed instructions from the box office tell you to put on your mask before you even get out of your car.

Off the parking lot, the wide, curving path through the greenery is painted with white Xs for social distancing, and when it opens on a sweep of lawn, that grass too is marked — with eight-foot circles, six feet apart, each pod big enough for a family of five with blankets and chairs, a picnic if you want.

None of this is normal, of course. But if almost normal is what you’re yearning for, if an alfresco evening at the theater is a fixture of your summertimes, then the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s Back Yard Stage is the place: a homey oasis in our 2020 hellscape where, for a little over an hour, you get to feel like yourself again.

Because all those reminders of the pandemic fall away as soon as you’re watching a play with live actors, barefaced and within spitting distance of one another. Kissing distance, too.

The show is “Crazy Love!,” and it’s made up of two separate programs: one, which I saw, comprising Molière’s “The Love Doctor” and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Aria da Capo”; the other, which I didn’t, a medley of Shakespeare scenes called “Verily, Madly Thine.”

About those actors, though, because that’s the nervous-making part, isn’t it? They are the theater’s non-Equity troupe, the Shrewd Mechanicals, who were hired to tour educational performances to schools. Having lived and worked together since January, they stuck around when the coronavirus shutdown came in March. They have been there, in company housing, ever since.

So when “The Love Doctor” starts, with the actors up close and touching (and the front row a good 25 feet from the lip of the newly built stage), we’re free to enjoy it without worrying about them. This feels like what used to be normal: being out in public but not on red alert.

Loosely translated and adapted by the theater’s artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte, who directed and designed both plays on the program I saw, “The Love Doctor” is a silly little squib of a farce, a romcom bagatelle that Molière dashed off in mere days.

The obtuse Sganarelle (Jeffrey Marc Alkins) is worried about his daughter, the sighing Lucinda (Billie Wyatt), who feigns illness when he refuses to let her marry her beloved, Clitandre (Isaac Hickox-Young). Sganarelle summons a bevy of foolish doctors. Lucinda’s crafty maid, Lisette (a standout Skye Pagon), calls just one: Clitandre in disguise.

Almost a distillation of Molière, this is ideal light entertainment, with the real world intruding only briefly, twice: when Sganarelle dons a mask with his tricorn hat, which gets a laugh; and when Lucinda, pretending physical distress, says, “I can’t breathe.” Wyatt tries valiantly to make those words fresh with her intonation, but the echo of Black Lives Matter is inescapable. In a scene meant to be humorous, an over-the-top daughter bending her father to her will, the phrase is jarring in a way that surely cannot be intended.

But “The Love Doctor” is for the most part fun, and a line Clitandre speaks tells why. Sganarelle, believing him to be a physician, asks him how he will treat Lucinda.

“I weave a healing web of words to charm the afflicted,” Clitandre says. “A single dose begins to restore well-being almost immediately.”

That is how this show works on us, as medicine for the play-starved soul. Like most outdoor theater, it is as much about the experience of being in the open air as it is about the performance, and the evening I went, there were other things to take in: propeller planes humming by overhead, mammoth dragonflies swooping low, the crazy rococo pink of the wispy sunset clouds.

The eight Shrewd Mechanicals are putting their summer to good use.

The second half of the program, “Aria da Capo,” from 1919, is also comic but more serious-minded. An antiwar play bracketed by the decadent clowns Pierrot (Christian Frost) and Columbine (Ellie Gossage), it has a both-sides attitude toward conflict that feels out of place in our present, yet the ending twists it into timelessness. It’s handsomely staged, too, with a cameo by a romantic crescent moon.

I cannot tell you how good it felt to applaud at the end of the show with other human beings, all of us in our separate pods but together on that lawn. I hadn’t realized I missed that collective chance to communicate gratitude.

But here is what surprised me most. Hours later, at home, still energized the way I am energized only by live performance, I noticed a physical sensation in my arms, my shoulders, my skull. It was so unfamiliar that it took a while to identify.

It was relaxation.

Remember that?

Crazy Love!
Through Aug. 23 on the Back Yard Stage at the Thomas H. Kean Theater Factory, 3 Vreeland Road, Florham Park, N.J.; 973-408-5600, shakespearenj.org. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

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