“Would you like a chair, sir?” Joe Carlson asks a patron seated on the ground during the pre-show for Theatre in Battery Park's first production (William Shakespeare's “As You Like It”). He then trots off to fetch a vintage lawn chair loaned to the company from Diversity Thrift.
Making sure everyone is welcome and comfortable is Carlson's goal as the producer of this venture, which ran for two weekends. There was live music for picnicking patrons, a truck full of cold drinks and snacks even umbrellas and rain ponchos in case the elements intruded. The neighborhood reacted so well to the idea of integrating theatre into their park that one household carried a couch down to the designated seating area to create an extension of their living room.
The production itself was a study of simplicity and inclusion. The racially mixed cast brought a contemporary relevance to the work, making it more accessible. Indeed the audience was diverse in age, race, gender and animal classification as entire families from great-grandparents to newborns some with dogs in tow came to enjoy a night of theater under the stars. The piecemeal eclectic costumes have a similar sort of equalizing affect, creating a casual just-up-here-doing-some-theater tone for the production.
Director James Alexander Bond instructed his cast to use the basest style of acting through exaggerated gestures and voice tones in order facilitate mass enjoyment of the play. His concept suited its purpose as audience members came and went as they pleased, fluctuating in number from 80 to more than 130 over the course of the performance.
The style proved challenging for some of the actors as they found difficulty displaying a range of emotion at such a performance level but those who were able to execute a broad style made the show quite enjoyable. Of particular note: Carolyn Boucher's domineering redneck woman, Phoebe, and Charles Raintree's eloquent Touchstone.
The addition of a three piece band and some original country and zydeco-influenced music, performed mostly by Tony Sanchez, further emphasized the down-home aspect of the show. Other charming touches included seating actors with the audience and an all-inclusive country line dance during the second act.
Overall, Joe Carlson achieved his mission of making theater available to everyone through this venture. But, better than that, he made it fun.