THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide



entire contents copyright 1995 by Larry Stark

Friday, 9 August, '96

This volume of the notebook should be subtitled:

Into the RAIN!

We were barely "Into The Woods" at The Publick Theatre tonight when the outdoor stage blinked with some lighting-effects that served no dramatic purpose whatever, and a few moments later the play had to be called on account of inclement weather. August is the cruelest month, it seems. So there's no review.

That's a pity, because the show was off to a good start, people were bouncing to the Sondheim score while watching James Lapine's dizzy little morris-dance plot. The characters from half a dozen fairy tales intertwine, interact, and interfere with one another's search for "happily ever after" in this surprising new interpretation of the familiar, and the twirling dance had just begun to tighten when the heavens panned the show.

Still, there is something new to talk about at The Public Theatre: they have an Internet web-site now:

Check in and taste the goodies --- which include pictures from last June's season-opener "Of Thee I Sing," descriptions of the shows done this summer, biographies of participants, and a brief history of the twenty-six-year-old company that boasts of being "the only Boston theatre with its own moat!"

Those twenty-six years of sunshine and rain have racked up an enviable string of productions, and awards for excellence --- and citations of appearances in Publick performances past litter the programs, proclaiming it a familiar company of old friends who find old friends returning to the pit full of hard wooden benches year after year. It can now call itself Boston's oldest resident company.

Their moat, connecting to the Charles River, puts The Publick on its own wooded island. The green wooden benches are firmly fixed to solid metal piping firmly anchored in a raked asphalt dish in front of a stage-house, with two solid lighting- pylons on each side of the audience, and open sky above stage, audience, box-office, and the grounds of Christian Herter Park beyond the moat. Musicians, singers, and actors operate without amplifiers or sound-baffles or protection from occasional noisy aircraft or lightning-laced thundershowers. For twenty-six years The Publick has pitted tiny budgets and determined talent against the elements, and they usually win at least two falls out of three.

But, like a lot of theater-spaces here in Boston, the ground itself has a history. I saw plays in that very spot nearly forty summers ago.

I never knew the full details, and memory is hazy, but this was the site for an ambitious entertainment-complex project that was intended to revolutionize the area. Plans included a big modern theater building, a sumptuous permanent home for The Institute for Contemporary Art, a big new hotel, ferries bringing sightseers up-river from Boston, and probably other goodies only vaguely sketched into the architect's renderings of this dream-to- be.

The I.C.A. did indeed build a temporary exhibition-space out there, with its own private bridge across the moat. And there was a temporary theatre there, too.

The Publick's asphalt dish was a part of that structure, but ranks of metal-frame cloth chairs filled the space where benches are now bolted. There was a tall stage-house too, but some years after the project was abandonned it burned and had to be demolished.

But this wasn't an outdoor-theatre --- it was a tent- theatre. Four big pylons where The Publick's light-trees now stand supported the wonder of the modern age: a fat, inflated pancake, like a big, bright-yellow u.f.o., was lashed into place over the whole area, where it kept out enough sun to allow matinees and stood between patrons and rough winds and weather.

These were mere promises to be fulfilled later --- temporary whets to our appetites intended to get people into the habit of going out to Herter Park in search of artistic experiences. And we did, too.

I got to Cambridge in January of 1957 after commuting to college from home for six and a half years, and when the first jobs put money in my purse I spent it on artistic experiences. It must have been that summer that I saw Jason Robards, Jr., and Siobhan McKenna do The Scottish Play there on the banks of the Charles. I invoke theatrical superstition here because the night I saw it, Macduff's hefty broadsword snapped during their final duel, and he had to dispatch Macbeth with a dagger.

Another production --- which may have been the following summer --- ended with equal ill-luck. It was John Gielgud doing "Much Ado About Nothing" and all proceeded swimmingly until it began to rain a few minutes into the final scene. This time no one got the slightest bit damp, but as the drops increased in frequency and size, the protective pancake began to rumble like a huge base-drum, until not only couldn't the audience hear the actors, they couldn't even hear themselves. Shrugging, waving farewells and dumb-showing frustration, they straggled off stage to applause nobody could hear either.

There were several dance events there as well. I can remember Jose Limon's company dancing "The Moor's Pavanne" and evoking the essence of Othello. I can remember Carmen deLavallade dancing to four recordings by Billie Holiday that traced her triumph, and her decay. She ended face-down, with one fist slowly, insistently pounding the stage while Holiday's flat, whisky- ravaged "thank you..........thank you......thank you..." acknowledged an eternal Carnegie-Hall standing-ovation for a voice that could no longer sing.

And then, suddenly, everything stopped. Apparently, when all those bright promises became more and more difficult to fulfill, one of the project's architects filled a suitcase with most of the funding and took a plane to Central America somewhere. The I.C.A. stayed a while --- in fact, in its first years The Publick Theatre actually did a few winter performances out in the chilly halls of that long, forlorn structure. But the chairs and the big pancake, the gallery-building, and even the stage-house itself decayed and disappeared until nothing remained after ten years but that big asphalt dish on the island inside the moat.

Then, in 1970...

Ah, but I don't have to tell you about that; you can read it for yourself at:

And their E-mail address is:

When you write them, tell them The Theater Mirror sent you.

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide