Development, Culture, and Community in the Forest of Arden: REV Theatre’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at Columbus Square Park

But all the story of the night told over, / And their minds transfigur’d so together, / More witnesseth than fancy’s images, / And grow to something of great constancy.
, Act 5, Scene 1.

Rudy Caporaso gives Puck's closing monologue. Photo by Dave Kappler
Rudy Caporaso gives Puck’s closing monologue. Photo by Dave Kappler

It was 80 degrees at dusk but a dense crowd sprawled on the lawn of Columbus Square Park in Passyunk for REV Theatre Company’s production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Passing motorcycles reminded us that we were still very much in the city—though for a few hours privy to the world of Athenians and fairies. Judging by the howls of laughter and the spontaneous applause, the audience was pleasantly scandalized by REV’s contemporary take on MIDSUMMER, particularly their cheeky, cabaret-style innuendo and musical numbers. The production’s zany boldness invited us to chase characters through the Forest of Arden against a backdrop of South Philadelphia’s urban skyline.

Families on picnic blankets and elderly couples in folding chairs snickered at contemporary references—like Bottom’s (Mark Knight) singing of the popular “All About That Bass”—and at Puck (Rudy Caporaso) who dazzled in a white gemstone jumpsuit that screamed disco diva.  Meanwhile, at the gate to the park, a clump of teens gathered to see what was going on, interest piqued by the neon costumes and large crowd. Small children rested their bikes against the fence behind the stage, pointing through the chain link as adults were thrown into kiddie pools.

At intermission, audience members bought arm lengths of raffle tickets to benefit the REV Theatre Company. Actor and artistic co-director Caporaso would later tell the audience, “Free outdoor theater is a misnomer, folks!” As I filled out my tickets, I began talking with Ken Kesslin, a neighborhood resident who had returned to see REV in the park for the second year.

Like many who live in the area, Kesslin is excited about the upcoming three million dollar Columbus Square renovation which includes plans for a dog park, recreation center, athletic fields, increased green space and patio, and a nature walk. “I don’t have kids, so a lot of the park [like the large playground area] isn’t usable to me right now,” he commented. It was obvious that events like REV’s production have become part of the neighborhood’s draw. “I’ve lived here for 10 years. It’s a good neighborhood,” Kesslin said. “Good people with good taste in theater,” I added.

REV Theatre Company is a contemporary group under the artistic direction of Rosemary Hay and Rudy Caporaso. Their mission is to present classical theater in ways that are accessible and applicable to today’s audiences. REV’s minimalistic approach to sets and props, as well as a commitment to incorporating popular music and audience interaction in performances, gives their production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM an animated and inviting feel.

After the performance, I had the brief pleasure of meeting Hay, between harried check-ins from her stage crew and hearty congratulations from audience members. She was thrilled with the turnout. “We had over 200 people here tonight. Just wonderful,” she told me, adding that attendance this year was almost triple what they saw at their 2015 summer production of Comedy of Errors. I asked how she liked the park as a venue. She smiled and swiveled her head, giving the area a loving once-over glance. “Bringing theatre and making it accessible to people who wouldn’t necessarily experience it is an imperative of ours, and we were able to do that [here] in South Philly in a way that we are completely committed to.”

As we discussed REV’s collaboration with Columbus Square Park, we were joined by Caporaso, still in one of his flamboyant costumes. “The crowd is so young this year, which is great. We’re growing an audience. We’re showing people that Shakespeare can be fun,” he said. With imaginative props (water guns and bubble wands were used to cast characters into a deep sleep) and expressive acting, the performance was nothing if not fun—this despite the fact that Hay chose to stick to classical Shakespearian language, rather than adapt to modern English.

Curious, I asked Rudy if his side-splitting interactions with the crowd were rehearsed or improvised. “All of my lines are exactly as Shakespeare wrote them for Puck. […] Tonight though, you saw that there was a mishap. During the big production number, the power failed! That interaction was completely on the fly. It could not have been predicted. But one needs to learn how to do that when performing in outdoor spaces, or with large audiences. You have to go with the flow,” he explained, as only a seasoned actor could.

I marveled at his ease in maneuvering this production’s challenges. “Do you have a favorite scene?” I asked them both. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done with the lover’s quarrel, which is the large, physically-infused fight scene between Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander. The use of the pools and ladders is very exciting, and from a director’s perspective, that’s my favorite,” Hay said. Caporaso added that he loves the end of the play because it captures “the essence of what theater is about: human connection.”

In the background of this beautiful revelation, the lawn was abuzz with congratulations, tear down, and dispersing crowds. I thanked them for an exciting production and they whisked away to oversee REV’s exit.

Proposed renovation of Columbus Square Park.
Proposed renovation of Columbus Square Park.

As the crew packed up the set, Ilene Wilder, president of the Columbus Square Advisory Council and former multi-million dollar Capitol Hill lobbyist, picked up stray trash on the lawn. After a final call for raffle tickets, she nodded towards the stage, “Wasn’t that hilarious? I can’t wait to see it again tomorrow night.”
We talked about the performance and I asked how she became interested in REV Theatre’s work. “I met Rosey [Hay] and Rudy [Caporaso] walking dogs in the neighborhood and we became friends immediately. I love theater people,” she said. I asked what made her want to work with REV and Columbus Square, as the community work, though noble, seemed a departure from her background in business and politics. “In business you are always creating, but there are defined parameters that only allow you to go so far. In the arts, there are no limits to what your imagination can create. The creative process is fun, and more importantly, energizing,” she explained.

Wilder shared with me that she hopes to bring a series of cultural events to the park, ranging from possible performances by the Pennsylvania Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra to theater companies—like REV and the park’s neighbor, Theatre Exile—local musicians, and movie screenings. “It’s important to offer the opportunity to experience theater, especially to children and underserved populations,” she told me. When asked how she determines programming for the park, Wilder said that she tries to plan events that are varied so that there’s something for everyone in the neighborhood to enjoy. “I’m a huge Rocky Horror fan. I would love to do the “Time Warp” in the park,” she commented, laughing.

After bringing Shakespeare to Columbus Square for the first time last year, REV received a warm welcome back. Wilder said the community has turned out in droves for their performances. “Social media has really helped us market these types of events. And of course, the renovation plans have brought a lot of attention,” she told me.

She described how the neighborhood around the park is developing rapidly. Improving school districts are a huge draw, with Andrew Jackson High School earning recognition for excellent literacy programs and standardized test scores. “We have couples settling here and starting families because of the schools. The neighborhood is shifting from predominantly older generations of Italians to young families from all over,” Wilder said. I commented that the park’s renovation would surely add even more to the allure of the neighborhood. “I’m really proud of it,” she said of the renovation plan. “I consider it my swan song for community activism and development.”


Fairy dance number, Photo by Dave Kappler
Fairy dance number, Photo by Dave Kappler

My boyfriend, Theodore Patestos, managing partner at Urban Development Strategies, a Philadelphia real estate development tech start-up, asked if there had been any pushback to development from longtime residents due to gentrification concerns. “Well, it’s difficult,” Wilder admitted, “because for many, many years they knew everybody in every house on the block.”

Theo explained that in his experience as a developer, it’s been important to “be respectful of the existing community” and take into account the types of projects that enrich a neighborhood. Wilder agreed, saying that this is why we need collaborative community programming, like REV Theatre’s performance at the park. Theo congratulated her on the park’s positive cultural impact on the community. “Programming like this is key to the big picture plan for development that benefits everyone. It’s all about inclusiveness and retaining a sense of community in Philly, the City of Neighborhoods,” he said.

Feeling a bit out of my depths with all the development-speak, I thanked Ilene for her generous commitment to sharing the arts with the community, and Theo and I left the park reflecting on the evening.

Seeing A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at Columbus Square Park was a true community experience. Even Theo, who is by no means a theater buff, was captured by the cast’s connection to the audience. Dogs barked, onlookers came and went, and the provocative Puck (Caporaso) interacted hilariously with the crowd—at different points inviting a child on stage, sitting in the laps of various audience members during a comically raunchy musical number, and even temporarily hijacking a scooter to ride off stage. In times of growth, existing residents are often pushed out of developing areas. However, REV’s performance was a testament to theater’s ability to bring a neighborhood together, turning Columbus Square Park into Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden.

In closing, Puck invited the audience, “give me your hands, if we be friends”—a fitting final note for the night of community building. We groundling Passyunk theatergoers lucked out with an inviting and uniting performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[Columbus Square Park, 12th and Wharton.] July 14-16, 2016;;
[Emlen Physick Estate, 1048 Washington St, Cape May, NJ.] July 19-23, 2016;


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