Bird-on-a-Cliff’s production of Shakespeare’s Long-Lost First Play opens in Woodstock

Left to right, Jared Reinmuth, Bill Solley and Lawrence Beeck. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

“Never!” replies Elli Michaels, co-founder of the Bird-on-a-Cliff Theatre Company. She’s been asked whether she and her husband and “partner in crime” David Aston-Reese had contemplated not putting on their summer Shakespeare production in Woodstock in this year of the plague. “But only because it was outdoors. It just had to be the right show.”

There are those of us who believe that it doesn’t feel like a proper summer at all without some theater under the stars – especially with so many other troupes in the region canceling their entire performance seasons on account of the danger of viral transmission among closely packed audiences.

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Bird-on-a-Cliff has the advantage of a fine Tudor-style outdoor stage located on the Comeau property off Tinker Street, where social distancing of the audience can be accomplished by marking off seating sections six feet apart using landscape paint or painters’ tape, according to Michaels.

Bird-on-a-Cliff is marking its quarter-century as a Woodstock-based not-for-profit organization this year, so it would have been especially disheartening if there had been no production. Michaels and Aston-Reese literally met doing Shakespeare Off-Off-Broadway, in a Thirteenth Street Repertory Theatre production of The Taming of the Shrew 39 years ago. After relocating to Woodstock in 1990 to found the Byrdcliffe Theatre Festival, they reprised the roles of Kate and Petruchio during Bird-on-a-Cliff’s first season under that name at Comeau, in 1996. “I said, ‘Once more unto the breach, before we get too old,’” Michaels recalls.

The 2020 season opens this Friday, August 7 and runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through September 6, with all performances of William Shakespeare’s Long-Lost First Play (Abridged) beginning at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free, with a $10 per person donation suggested. Bring lawn chairs or a blanket, and a picnic if you wish. Bottled water and bags of chips will be for sale, but in Michaels’ opinion, “Wine is crucial to the experience.”

A couple of factors went into the decision of what would be the right show for the summer of pandemic. “We said, ‘We need something funny this year. We want the experience to be a fun one for people.’” The play also needed only a small cast, so that rehearsals could be conducted with minimal risk of exposure to the virus. How to do that and still have it be Shakespeare? Michaels and Aston-Reese rejected the three-woman-cast version of Macbeth that has been all the rage in recent years, regarding it as too grim a choice for these difficult times. They settled instead on a comedic pastiche created in 2016 by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, whose earlier work, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), Bird-on-a-Cliff performed in 2017.

Written by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, William Shakespeare’s Long-Lost First Play (Abridged) is a wild romp whose premise, Michaels says, is that “They found a manuscript in a hole in a parking lot” – a reference to the 2012 discovery of the mortal remains of King Richard III buried underneath a car park in the English city of Leicester. “A lot of it rhymes. People who like Shakespeare are going to really love it.”

All the roles, both male and female, with frequent costume changes, will be executed by three local actors: Bill Solley, Lawrence Beeks and Jared Reinmuth, author of the graphic novel Big Black: Stand at Attica. “It has been a joy to work with these three guys,” reports Michaels. “They’ve been rehearsing when it’s 100 degrees out on that stage, and they’re not complaining.”

The Comeau property is located at 45 Comeau Drive in Woodstock. To learn more about the Bird-on-a-Cliff Theatre Company, visit www.birdonacliff.org.