CODY, Wy. -- Montana Shakespeare in the Parks might be the most traveled theater troupe in the world. Every summer it covers thousands of miles in crisscrossing Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The company performs for free two productions (this year Romeo and Juliet and Moliere's Tartuffe) on alternate nights, as it visits some 50 towns in 70 days in a geographical area of roughly 150,000 square miles, from sagebrush prairie to lush river valley to jagged mountain peaks. The troupe is based at Montana State University's College of Arts and Architecture in Bozeman.
It stopped in Cody recently and did Romeo and Juliet in City Park. It was a fine evening with a sultry breeze in the tall, swaying cottonwoods, and birdsong that could have been mistaken for the larks and nightingales of Shakespeare's beautiful tragedy. The company had a better sound system than in years past, and despite the noisy stirring of the trees, I could hear every line of dialogue from my seat on the grass 20 feet away.
"Is now the two hours traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend."
And that was good, because City Park borders Sheridan Avenue, and late July Cody is suddenly inundated with motorcyclists going to and from Yellowstone National Park and the big annual biker rally at Sturgis, South Dakota.
In past years, the roaring Harleys were effective in drowning out sublime Shakespearean dialogue. Throw in Cody's regular evening parade of locals driving souped-up pickup trucks with throbbing stereos (in an odd cultural twist, Wyoming's younger generation has forsaken country-western music for hip-hop). I recall past summer productions of Twelfth Night and As You Like It that were almost unhearable.
"Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
Profaners of this neighbor-stained steel --
Will they not hear? What, ho! You men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage…."
Anyway, about two or three hundred Cody culture hounds and a sprinkling of tourists showed up for the production. They set up their lawn chairs and spread their blankets in a crescent in front of the stage.
As in many other aspects of outdoor American life there were children and dogs everywhere. The latter cavorted before the stage, while the former played on nearby swings. A couple of young boys tried to climb the lower reaches of a stage-side cottonwood tree. I suppose this is a feature of our egalitarian culture; the fact that great theater performed outdoors for free is almost always accompanied by childish behavior, not only from the kids, but from adults doing things like tossing frisbees. At least the sound system covered up the happy screaming of the kids. Oddly enough, cellphones weren't a problem. A cast member had requested that they be turned off, and I didn't hear any during the performance.
"The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting fantasticoes -- these new tuners of accent!"
It was a mixed crowd, and by that I mean a diverse New West model of cowboy hats and those broad-billed, canvas-colored caps favored by the outdoor recreation crowd. A varied group of folks who had arrived at the Park in pickup trucks, Subarus and minivans, or riding a mountain bike. There were even a couple of horses, though they were temporarily confined to a parked horsetrailer.
"Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds…."
The backstage area was visible to people sitting at the extreme sides of the stage, its goings-on making for an amusing distraction from the sweaty action of the play.
"O noble Prince, I can discover all
The unlucky manage of this fatal brawl".
Mercutio stood on the grass backstage and talked into a cellphone (I guess outgoing cast calls were okay). The costumed anachronism reminded me of those Hollywood backlot commissary scenes shown in movies such as Sunset Boulevard, The Day of the Locust," and Blazing Saddles. Meanwhile, Romeo himself sat on a lawnchair nearby and smoked a cigarette as he chatted with a stagehand. Then he placed the little black earphones of an I-Pod on his head, sort of a high tech laurel wreath complementing his otherwise Renaissance-era get-up of tunic and tights. He seemed to be charging his batteries -- not the I-Pod's, his own -- for the ultimate tragic scene to come.
Maybe Shakespeare -- who was an actor himself -- would have appreciated the backstage informality and its visibility. Maybe it would have reminded him of his own days at the Globe Theater. There is something about an accessibly transparent outdoor production on a balmy summer evening that lends an Elizabethan quality to it.
The meadowlarks trilled in the breeze-undulated cottonwoods; the big Harleys out on Sheridan Avenue roared and roared.