After a Tough Year, Shakespeare Returns to the Boston Common

As recently as the springtime, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (CSC) didn’t know whether they would be able to perform for audiences on the Boston Common – which would have constituted a second year of shutdowns for the 26-year-old endeavor that is one of the most popular, and free, summer arts stops in the city.

However, the CSC took a chance and mobilized, and it is paying dividends as this week they premiere ‘The Tempest’ outdoors on the Boston Common with no restrictions, and a wonderful new twist in recruiting Boston Ballet principal dancer John Lam to play the part of Ariel – along with a stellar cast ready to get out and perform again after more than a year of going dark due to COVID-19.

Director Steven Maler said they felt in the spring that it might be possible, and so they began rehearsals because they felt it was their duty to be ready.

“In the early, early part of the spring, it looked like it would be possible to be out on the Boston Common, but it was still unclear,” he said. “We felt it was important to mobilize our effort and try to be ready to go and re-gather…It’s been quite challenging, frankly, to all of us, but we’re committed to the notion that theatre and the arts and Shakespeare fundamentally is something that should be available to everyone regardless of age, socio-economic status, race and gender. We feel these plays are a community resource and needed to go on. Being on the Common is very much aligned with our mission.”

‘The Tempest’ was to open on Wednesday night, July 26, weather permitting and will be on for 16 performances through Aug. 8. It’s a whirlwind of performing, and it was an abbreviated rehearsal period, but audiences should note that performers are hungry to be out and in front of a crowd again – as many haven’t been able to perform for over a year.

“For all of us on hiatus during this time, we stayed engaged and tried to do things on Zoom or the radio, but this is a very unique art form that requires a collective working in unison together,” said Maler. “We all got so isolated and alone and now being able to be in front of people on a stage is joyful, but it’s also been a process of discovery.”

John Douglas Thompson and John Lam during rehearsals for ‘The Tempest’ last week./Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

The team has only been rehearsing together in waves since last month, and Maler said it was a slow re-introduction, and there were some adjustments. Performing, especially Shakespeare, isn’t like getting on a bike and riding off after a long break.

“You don’t know whether to hug, or shake hands or if it’s okay to take off your mask,” he said. “There had to be a gentle re-discovery and re-connecting as we tried to do the most difficult play with difficult challenges, and in a short period of time.”

One of the most interesting wrinkles for the production will be the recruitment of 18-year Boston Ballet veteran John Lam to the stage. While Lam has performed as a principal dancer his entire career with the Boston Ballet, and has done some dance productions based on Shakespeare, he said he has never performed on the Shakespearian stage.

While it has been a very new experience, he said he enjoys it and hopes to be able to do more theatre alongside his work at Boston Ballet.

“This is my first Shakespeare theatre acting role,” he said. “I took a big leap and decided to challenge myself not only with dancing, but also in a world that I’m completely unfamiliar with.”

Lam said one of the greatest challenges has been the responsibility to interpret his character and to do so correctly for the audience. In the dance world, he said many times the choreography is more strict and there isn’t the freedom to go through an entire artistic journey to discover how one will perform their role. He said he has enjoyed the role of Ariel, and has discovered himself in the character through what has been a new process for him.

“At Boston Ballet, I was in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and that gave me a starting point of where Ariel is with Prospero,” he said. “Ariel has been played by women and men and is an androgynous character. He is of air and light and that has given me a nucleus to approach the role…The whole theatre process has really shed light on the importance of developing characters to make the storytelling more vibrant.”

He said the experience has been liberating for him as an artist, and he hopes he can continue his journey in the theatre in the future.

“If this is the way it is normally, I’d love to delve into more opportunities like this,” he said.

“I don’t think we should box ourselves into doing just one thing as artists,” he continued. “I’ve only performed for Boston Ballet my entire career. It’s been nice to be working for another [Artistic Director] that also strives for excellence in art-making. It’s nice to be able to open our wings and co-collaborate with other artists.”

John Lam, Nora Eschenheimer, John Douglas Thompson, and Director Steve Maler during rehearsals last week for ‘The Tempest.’/Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

In addition to Lam, the other artists include John Douglas Thompson (Prospero), Remo Airaldi (Antonio), Siobhan Juanita Brown (Gonzala), Nora Eschenheimer (Miranda), John Kuntz (Trinculo), and Richard Noble (Alonso).

All shows are at 8 p.m. and it runs through Aug. 8. There are no shows on Monday, July 26, and Monday, Aug. 2.

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