Thirty-seven plays, 97 minutes and one grassy open area in East Hampton Village.
Welcome to “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged” the Neo-Political Cowgirls’ (NPC) latest theatrical venture, which the troupe will perform in Herrick Park from July 15 to 25.
The production is just one of three free, public entertainment offerings being offered in East Hampton Village this summer (besides this NPC production, HamptonsFilm is showing family-friendly movies in Herrick Park every Wednesday, and down at Main Beach, local musicians are presenting Tuesday evening concerts). Directed by Kate Mueth (NPC’s founder and artistic director), this irreverent take on Shakespeare’s total catalog stars Trevor Vaughn, John Kroft and LaWanda Hopkins who are taking on every conceivable role as they condense the Bard’s many scripts into one, madcap production. It’s an astounding feat for just a cast of three, but perhaps even more astounding is the fact that, for the first time in living memory, the Village of East Hampton is allowing a theatrical production to be held in the park.
For Mueth, it’s about time, and she notes that this event marks a real turning point in the relationship between local governments and the non-profit cultural institutions who strive to bring offerings to the community. In addition to East Hampton Village, East Hampton Chamber of Commerce is also partnering on the production.
“This is where I feel a real possibility — local arts groups and municipalities in collaboration — and whether through sponsorship or marketing crossover, bringing access to public spaces,” said Mueth during a recent break in rehearsals at Herrick Park. “It’s helping to bring buoyancy to our local businesses and talking them up so people come here and go there.”
Like many in the community, Mueth sees a tendency for residents to go into hiding once the busy months arrive on the East End. It’s as if each summer, the villages and towns become the domain of visitors, with little to offer those who call this place home on a year-round basis.
But she hopes offerings like “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged” can begin to alter that script.
“This is the first scripted play NPC is producing. It’s not what we normally do, but as far as our mission for community building, it’s exactly what we should do,” Mueth explained. “What does the community need and how can we service it?
“There’s something to be said for reaching out and buoying each other — and most thriving tourists areas know this and have it down,” she added. “Instead of competition and fear of ‘the other,’ how do we work together in ingenuity and come up with ways to think of things differently?
“I hope this can be a birth of that,” Mueth said, noting that events like this can bring residents together and are particularly needed after the year of isolation brought on by COVID-19. “We have a start, because of the village’s openness to use this space for people and everyone being able to share these moments.”
Because this play is being presented in an open park, rather than a theater, the set for “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged” will be minimal. There is no backstage, and instead, a series of seven banners planted in the grass will serve as set pieces. Audience members will be seated on the grass in “pods” of family and friends — picnics and beach chairs welcome.
As the director of the play, Mueth felt that keeping it simple was key to this first Herrick Park production.
“I’m not going to rehearse with 18 actors and as much as I love Shakespeare, even though the comedies are fun and adventurous, I felt the timing was such that we needed to laugh, bust a gut and have simplicity and exuberant joy,” said Mueth, who has directed “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged” twice before. “You don’t have to have a heavy set. It’s just ridiculous fun.”
Portraying that fun on stage … err, grass, will be John Kroft, Trevor Vaughn and LaWanda Hopkins, who, during a recent break in rehearsals at the park, said they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
“It’s exhausting,” admitted Kroft, when asked about the challenges of performing a piece like this in a park setting. “It’s about focus. You don’t get as much feedback as you do in a closed space. You don’t know how the sound is carrying, then you do everything bigger and more frantically. I feel like in the end, I’m expending more energy. But we’ll be mic’d, which I think is the right call.”
“I think it’s the perfect start to come out of COVID — under a cherry tree across from a playground,” added Vaughn.
“But you have to work harder to get the audience’s attention,” Kroft countered.
That’s an important consideration, given there’s a lot of meat for audiences to pay attention to in “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.” Written by a trio of actors — Daniel Singer, Jess Winfield and Adam Long —the play was first performed as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1987. Later, it ran for nine years at London’s Criterion Theatre. These days, the play is a favorite of theatrical troupes both large and small.
“It’s like a crash course kaleidoscope on acid with Shakespeare,” Vaughn said. “It’s fantastic for people well acquainted with Shakespeare and you have to cover those jokes and know why they’re jokes. But at the same time, what’s in the text we’re honoring and what’s outside it? We’re figuring that out with repertoire, going back and forth between the Bard and our own team effort to get through this impossible task to pull off all of Shakespeare’s works. Will they keel over?”
Unlike classical Shakespeare, in this play, deviation and improvisation is encouraged by the playwrights. Over the years, addendums and alterations have been added to the original script, which is fortunate, given that not all the material in the original text has aged gracefully — especially a cringe-worthy pseudo-rap scene of “Othello” that Mueth and her cast found particularly offensive.
“It’s three white guys pulling off a bad version of Run DMC meets Beastie Boys with dick humor and doing a rap badly,” said Vaughn in explaining the problematic passage. “We said, ‘We can do better, let’s scrap it.’”
So Vaughn and fellow cast member Hopkins set out to rewrite the segment, but this time from the point of view of a strong woman.
“Instead of jokey masculine jokes, it’s Desdemona’s point of view and we’re seeing it through LaWanda’s eyes,” Vaughn explained. “It gave me a great chance to look into ‘Othello.’ This is an incredible play and Desdemona shakes the world because she decides — the power is in her perspective.”
“There were some phrases and words in there that were triggering, but I trusted the collaboration I had with Trevor to make this happen,” Hopkins added. “I feel like the times we met and came to the table with experiences and thoughts and different pathways of how we can make it work were great.”
“If you’re looking to make it more inclusive, you need to do ‘Othello’ like this, with a woman of color,” Vaughn added.
“LaWanda is a dear friend and I rely on her so much in our company,” Mueth said. “This has been a great opportunity to let her lead the way — not to make it her job to educate us, but be involved in the process. How are we going to bring this into the world?”
Adapting the script to today’s sensibilities is one challenge, but adapting to the unpredictability of the outdoor surroundings is another. Fortunately for Mueth and her NPC troupe, adjusting to unpredictable conditions is par for the course.
“The Neo-political Cowgirls are always in new spaces and we have to figure out what’s golden and what’s problematic,” said Mueth. “We already know there will be trains and overhead there will be birds and planes and we’ll have to work harder to get the audience’s attention.”
Ideally, the madcap adventure being shared by the three actors “on stage” will be enough to keep everyone focused on the action.
“For me, the most fun is Hamlet,” Kroft said when asked about his favorite part of the script. “I’ve been delightfully surprised by the amazing speeches.”
“Our version of Hamlet is the wrong version. Then we do a truncated version and then when do Hamlet backwards,” Vaughn added. “It’s an Olympic feat we’re asking of ourselves and it’s very silly.”
“It’s so much fun and challenging and different. Most of the time, a Shakespeare play has stood the test of time and is an instruction manual, and if you just adhere to the page and do it justice, it will be OK,” said Kroft. “In this play, it’s, ‘Nope, we better come up with something together.’ We have to create a common sense of humor we believe in and we’re hoping that if it’s fun for us, it’s fun for them.”
“We’re asking is this so sacred? is this precious? What’s the real deal? What’s BS?” said Vaughn. “There’s this beautiful irreverence, and this chance to get back to the essence and not put it to lofty heights about class systems.”
“Shakespeare was never meant to be a high class thing,” Kroft added. “It’s for everyone.”
Yes, even year-round East End residents.
“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged” runs Thursday to Sunday, July 15 to July 25, 7 p.m., at Herrick Park, Newtown Lane, East Hampton. Bring a blanket, a picnic or a low beach chair. Tickets free via $5 reservation. On the night of the show, NPC will return the $5 in cash. VIP pods available (reserved seating and a swag bag of local business goodies) for up to four people for $150. For tickets, visit npcowgirls.org.