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Arts and Entertainment | Thursday, August 5th, 2010, 11:32 am

Open Air Shakespeare Transforms Deering Oaks

Robert Foley | Courtesy photo
The Twelfth Night is not the only thing changing Deering Oaks

Nestled under the oaks in the ravine by the footbridge audiences gather every Thursday through Saturday night to travel to Illyria from the comfort of their lawn chairs and picnic blankets in one of Portland’s largest parks.

The Fenix Theatre Company, a non-profit theatre organization from Southern Maine, has spent their summer learning, rehearsing and eventually performing Shakespeare’s epic comedy Twelfth Night in the park. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is a twisted but hilarious knot of mistaken identities, light-hearted banter and crafty word play between the characters. Not to give away the WHOLE plot before you see it (in case you slept through this part of junior year English) but it basically shakes down like this:

The leading character, Viola, is shipwrecked apart from her twin brother Sebastian, whom she believes is dead. She ends up in the province of Illyria, and costumes herself as a young male page to work in the service of Orsino, the Duke of Illyria. Orsino is hopelessly (and unrequitedly) in love with Lady Olivia, who lost both her brother and father recently. Orsino sends Viola (masquerading as Cesario) to woo Olivia, Olivia takes a shine to Cesario based on his/her smooth mastery of words and poetry, and if your brain does not hurt from trying to unravel this knot yet then you are a far better person than I.

As the sun set over the baseball fields in Deering Oaks, the Fenix Theatre Company managed to transport the riveted audience to the shores of Illyria, the court of Orsino, the home of Lady Olivia and the streets of town where the most amusing “street fight” ensues, highlighted by the preparatory hijinks of secondary character Sir Andrew Aguecheek. From the beginning of the play with it’s rippling blue ocean storm to the side-splitting dialogue between Feste (The Jester), Sir Toby Belch and their little posse to the final scenes of chapels and dungeon cells and explanations, you almost forget where you are.

Which happens a lot in Deering Oaks Park.

It wasn’t long ago that Deering Oaks was grassy fields where people occasionally picnicked but were usually run out by the near-rabid ducks who owned those banks. Effectively hopped up on the neon green slime that once coated most of the “duck pond” they might as well have been shooting strands out of it their little webbed feet. The playground was in a state of disrepair that led even the most attentive parent to find other areas for their children to swing and slide. The castle wasn’t even open, let alone looking like a place you wanted to go near. And the archaic lighting destined visitors leave before the final rays of dusk turned Deering Oaks into a frightening area of shadows.

Fortunately between grants and contributions from the public and private sectors, the assignment of the park to the Portland Department of Public Services and the tireless work of the Friends of Deering Oaks, the park has gone through a transformation of it’s own.

On Saturdays in spring and summer the road from the castle to the ravine is filled with delicious local fruits and vegetables and beautiful crafts and flowers at the Portland Farmer’s Market. Multiple organizations host their festivals at the park (Southern Maine Pride and Festival of Nations to name a couple…but whatever happened to the Deering Oaks Family Festival?) bringing together folks of all ages, races, orientations and genders for a day of community. In the winter millions of tiny lights float in the barren tree branches overhead creating a wonderland dreamed up by local artist Pandora LaCasse.

The lights are in the process of being updated through the cooperation of Central Maine Power. The playground is under construction to become one of Maine’s premiere natural play spaces and is set to include such awesome features as an in-ground slide, a dry steam-bed, a rocky beach area, an adventure trail, wooden block climbing, and much more. People can picnic on the grass without fear of being bitten by a radioactive duck. And the ravine and water pools behind the footbridge have been cleaned up and restored to allow for public lounging and use.

Which is extremely important when you are looking for the ideal outdoor venue to recreate one of the Bard’s masterpieces.

Twelfth Night performances continue through August 14th in the ravine/water basin area of Deering Oaks park at 6:30 PM. All performances are free but a donation is encouraged at the end of the show. For more information check out Fenix Theatre Company on Facebook or visit their website.

Elisa Doucette is a Portland-based freelance writer who mainlines coffee, local live music and the scent of old book pages habitually. She is a frequent contributor to a number of young professional, relationship and social media sites around the web, including her own site Ophelia’s Webb and her popular relationship and dating blog on MaineToday.com The Single Slice. You can find her online in about a bajillion different places.

Elisa Doucette is a Portland-based freelance writer who mainlines coffee, local live music and the scent of old book pages habitually. She is a frequent contributor to a number of young professional, relationship and social media sites around the web, including her own site Ophelia's Webb and her popular relationship and dating blog on MaineToday.com The Single Slice. You can find her online in about a bajillion different places.

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